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August 09, 2019  |  Friday words #183  |  212 hit(s)

A few weeks ago I learned the word hierophany, which refers to a physical manifestation of the divine—burning bushes and whatnot. In response to that post, someone asked if I knew the word tyromancy. I did not.

The -mancy part refers to divination, which (haha) manifests in words like pyromancy (“divination by fire”), chiromancy (palm reading), and necromancer (“magician; one who divines via communication with the dead”). The tyro part is the Greek word for cheese (also sometimes turo or tiro). So tyromancy is divination by observing the coagulation of cheese. The Encyclopedia.com site makes a comment that I bet speaks for many of us: “Unfortunately, the method does not appear to have been recorded.” An alternative explanation is that tyromancy involved reading the patterns of mold that would form on cheese, or based on which piece of cheese a mouse would eat.

Fun fact: There are many words, a lot of them medical, that also involve tyro/turo and cheese. Example: tyrotoxicon, referring to a type of food poisoning from bad cheese.

For origins this week, I want to revisit an unusual source of words: expressions in another language. To refresh your memory, a while back I investigated the origins of subpoena, which is said to be from Latin “under penalty,” the first words on a writ ordering appearance before the court.

I got curious whether we had other words like that, and found a Hail Mary, our ABCs, credo, dirge, and some others. The lexicographer Orin Hargraves suggested that we call these prolegonyms, for “intro-name.”

Since then I’ve run across a couple more terms that are also based on expressions:

  • hocus pocus. This one is dicey, but someone in the late 1600s asserted that hocus pocus was derived from (or was a corruption of) the phrase Hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”) from the Latin mass. The OED is a bit skeptical about this one, since there’s only one source, who was speculating, and moreover sounds like he had a Protestant ax to grind about transubstantiation. But no one has a better theory, so you’ll see this etymology pretty frequently.

  • pony up, meaning “to pay.” This might possibly be from legem pone, the title of a section (section He) of Psalm 119 (118 in the Latin Vulgate Bible) that begins legem pone mihi (“Put before me …”). The roundabout explanation is that this psalm was a designated prayer for March 25, which was a day on which debts were paid. The word pony definitely became slang for money, but whether it comes from this source isn’t entirely 100% sure.

  • culprit. Conjectured to be a shortened form of cul[pable] (“guilty”) and prist (“ready”). As a bonus, this one might be based on a misinterpretation. Here’s the OED’s explanation:

    It is supposed that when the prisoner had pleaded ‘Not guilty’, the Clerk of the Crown replied with ‘Culpable: prest d'averrer nostre bille,’ i.e. ‘Guilty: [and I am] ready to aver our indictment’; that this reply was noted on the roll in the form cul. prist, etc.; and that, at a later time, after the disuse of Law French, this formula was mistaken for an appellation addressed to the accused.

There has to be a pretty small number of words in English that can be traced back to a written expression in another language. I’m pleased that I’m still finding a few now and then.

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