Some readers' questions answered

AFTER the May "Wordspeak" on the origin of the phrase "rule of thumb", readers responded both with opinions and questions about words and phrases related to linear and liquid measures. Many wanted to know if certain common denominators of weight and distance had something to do with the extremities and other (some wildly suggestive) parts of the human body. This column is to set the record straight as well as to quell those imaginative minds. I had to look up many answers, or consult with other writers on language.

First the smallest. Latin uncia meaning "twelfth part" was the source of both "inch" and "ounce"; inch kept its meaning but ounce, through the vagaries of usage, became the sixteenth part of a pound. Inch was first pronounced "ynce", then "unche", becoming inch by 1300.

Beowulf, the most famous and the longest surviving poem in Old English, written c. 1000, mentions a linear measurement as "fot"; therefore all tales that credit King John of England (1199-1216) for decreeing that 12 ynces, henceforth, will be called the same as the size of the lower extremity of his leg must be discounted. In all probability, this unit of measurement was chosen to apply to a certain length that was closest to the average male foot. People must have had really big feet in the olden days!

The three-foot yard was once about a 15 feet long stick used by Anglo-Saxons for measuring. The term originated, like many other similar terms from Germanic languages, as "gazdaz" (pointed stick). It was once "gerd", then "yerd" before it finally gelled into the size and the spelling that we know now. A relatively recent phrase "the whole nine yards" meaning "the whole thing" or "all of it" or "everything" has nothing to do with clothes or the garment industry; construction workers are said to have coined it for "nine cubic yards of mixed cement" - the maximum capacity of a truck. But I wouldn't bet my cement-mixer on this explanation.

Furlong, one-eighth of a mile, was once "furlang", and meant the length of a furrow in a common field which was a square of eight acres. Mile came from Latin mille (thousand), since the Roman linear measurement of a mile constituted of 1000 paces. The reason why the number 1000 came to denote a distance of 1760 yards is what makes word histories so fascinating. The Roman "pace" was equivalent to one step with each foot, and the Roman mile came to approximately 4,860 feet, about 400 feet short of a statute mile. The length of the pace as a unit varied considerably at different periods and in different localities. The name remained even when the distance covered was standardised.

Similarly, as early as the 9th Century, furlong was regarded as the equivalent of the Roman stadium, which was one-eighth of the Roman mile, and hence furlong became the name for the eighth part of the English mile. Both furlong and mile were absorbed into Indian languages with a slight variation in pronunciation. Mille as the original unit of 1000 is still hard at work in words such as millennium and milligram.

Pint (pynte in mid 14th Century), a unit of liquid and dry measure, is related to "paint" and is a variant of a Latin term meaning "to paint." This sense of the word arose from the practice of painting a mark on a vessel indicating a certain measure which came to be known as a pint. The etymology of another liquid measure "quart" is obvious, for it refers to a quarter: one-fourth or a fourth part of something. Gallon evolved from Old French galon for liquid measure, which was borrowed from Medieval Latin galleta for "bucket". If Americana buffs think that a cowboy's ten gallon hat indicated the hat's capacity to hold liquid, they are wrong. The Americanism has its origin in the Spanish word for braid, gal"n; the hat got its name from the number of braids that decorated the base of its crown.

* * *

Since one source of the phrase "rule of thumb" referred to wife- beating, some readers offered guesses about the origin of words "woman" and "wife".

The passage of "woman" and "wife" from its origins to its current usage is nothing but convoluted. The primary sense of Old English man was "human being" (hence, mankind), and the words wer (man) and wif (woman) distinguished the sexes. A woman, literally, meant a "female person". Until about the 8th Century, a woman was wifman, that is, a wif (woman) man (person). Wif was the source of wife in modern English; wifman turned into "wimman", then into "wumman", and finally came out as woman by 1250. Man began to mean "adult male" around late 13th Century.

Those thinking of taking me to task for using the term "convoluted" may consider this: wife originally meant, simply, a woman. It got its "married woman" sense during Old English, that is, c. 766. Wer for man has survived until today in werewolf (meaning man-wolf). Similarly, wife's meaning a woman has been retained in words such as midwife, fishwife, and old wives' tale.



E-mail the author at anand@journalist.com