Meanings of life…

10 Jul

I “like” words, as we say in fb land. Not just words for the sake of words, but the essence of the word, the real meaning of it.

I have already explored the entertainment that can be derived from fictitious etymologies, (or more simply, lying) in my High Definition post, but the really interesting stuff comes when you look at the true origins of the collections of letters that make up our language.
And I have a hunch that many of you share my fascination. Aha! There’s one right there. Hunch. That came about due to the medieval belief that hunchbacks were possessed, and could see the future. This carried over to the Old West in America in the 1900’s, where it was considered lucky to rub the hump of a hunchback when playing poker.

See? Didn’t even make it out of the first paragraph before you learnt something. Everyone has a favourite piece of trivia (Trivia – “Tri” three, “via” route. A place where three roads met, where people would stop to gossip) sorry, where was I?…I’ll never get anywhere at this rate.

One of my favourite word roots is that of Assassin. The origin of this word is from the late eleventh to early twelfth century in Persia, where the fanatical leader Hasan-e Sabahh was busy trying to wipe out the opposition leaders with the help of his drug crazed Hashashshin, or “Hashish eaters” – political hit men. These guys were apparently so fearsome in their pot-fueled frenzy that the bodyguards of assassins’ targets fled in terror, rather than defend their masters from the approaching maniacs.


And for another take on the Hasan-e Sabahh story, (although I suspect, from the same perspective) go here for some Hawkwind.

Another of my personal favourite origins of a phrase is relatively modern one, and is undoubtedly known to a good many other people. Catch-22 is a phrase meaning that someone is stuck in a dilemma in which either route leads to failure.
The genesis of the term comes, of course, from Joseph Heller’s masterpiece anti-war novel of the same name, in which pilots are forced to fly an increasingly high number of missions from an airbase in the Pacific.
The lead character, Yossarian, decides to feign insanity to get himself relieved of duty. However, in doing so, proves the exact opposite. As he says; “There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that any concern for one’s own safety, in the face of dangers that were real and immediate, was the process of a rational mind”
If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.


I hope I don’t come across as too much of a Smart Alec, no really I do, seeing as who the phrase originates with. Alec Hoag was a con man in the 1840’s who, along with his wife, swindled people out of their cash by entrapping them in an embarrassing situation that they couldn’t report.
His wife would pose as a hooker, then while she was entertaining the punters, he would rob them. If caught, he would also bribe the police to let him go, giving him a reputation for being a bit too smart for his own good.

I’ll get my coat…

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Posted by on July 10, 2012 in Etymology


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