Fun with Etymology (*Devil’s Derivations*)

[False Etymologies ala the false definitions in Ambrose Bierce’s wonderful Devil’s Dictionary]


In the 1600s, missionaries sent to the New World would often promise to “help” a person only if she or he would concede that the missionaries’ beliefs were “all true”–or, as the phrase was sometimes written in the 1600s, ‘al true’. Like Puritans and Quakers, Altruists initially resisted but eventually embraced the term applied to them by cynical critics.

Although no longer used as a compound, “bargain” was originally formed in the early 1700s by combining “bar” and “gain”. While the meaning of “gain” is clear, the relevant sense of “bar” is less certain. Two prominent theories disagree about the correct meaning of “bar”: one theory suggests that “bar” refers here to the legal term associated with lawyers (or “barristers”), while the other theory asserts that the relevant “bar” is the one at which alcohol is served.

Both theories agree that “bargain” referred originally to an agreement disadvantageous to a swindled party and that “bargain” gradually shifted in denotation and connotation from the negative “that which is unjustly obtained at a reduced price” to the more positive “that which is obtained at a reduced price”. The “Legalists”, as they call themselves, argue that “bargain” originally referred to the type of deals sly lawyers managed to obtain for clients. If a clever person swindled someone else, people would say that the beneficiary had gained the sort of deal usually obtained only by “the bar”—a shortened form of “members of the bar”, i.e. lawyers. “Alcoholics,” on the other hand, insist that “bargain” was the sort of “gain” a person might obtain from someone who had been drinking heavily at a “bar;” the Alkies—as many know the group—have found evidence that con artists would pace their drinking carefully to remain more or less sober while befriending drunken people at bars. The con artists would then convince these drunken people to sell or exchange valuables at low prices and coax the intoxicated dupes into making imprudent bets and investments. A successful con would often brag that he or she had walked away with a “bar gain”—i.e. the type of gain one was mostly likely to obtain at a bar.*

*Regardless of the term’s origins, the Alkies’ explanation is the one that most early moderns accepted. Supporting the Alkies’ claims is a well-known example from Anaximander Snope’s An Essay on Witticism:
When fellows get themselves a little drunk,
Transactions smelling foul as any skunk
Obtain with ease their signed and sealed consent
[A fact for which they later will repent]—
…For, while the lads are drinking to my health,
I’m busily depriving them of wealth.
The morning after, dupes will blame their stars,
And I will count the gain I got from bars.


“Egalitarian” was originally a term of ridicule employed by a capitalist who accused his socialist opponent of “consuming the eagles soaring above the herd.” This word, meaning originally “those who eat eagles,” was coined by analogy with “vegetarian,”* meaning “those who eat primarily vegetables and avoid eating animals.” Undergoing a type of transformation common in the history of languages, “egalitarian” became a word with positive connotations thanks to social changes and its fortuitous similarity to “equalitarian”.

*Some might suggest that “aquilavore”—“Aquila” + “vor[are]e,” modeled on “carnivore” and “omnivore”—would have been a more appropriate term than “egalitarian.” “Vegetarian,” the word on which “egalitarian” is based, raises an interesting question: “If vegetarians eat primarily vegetables, why don’t humanitarians eat humans?”

Two words still in use combined to form this originally xenophobic term. Like the Ancient Greeks, who considered all non-Greeks “barbarians,” the Early Modern Brits thought of all outsiders as enemies and referred to other kingdoms as places where the “foe reigns”. [Pronunciation of the first syllable has changed gradually from “foe” to “for”].

The earliest recorded use of the term appears in Gilliam Tremblestaff’s tragedy Spamlet:
“As long as Philip wears the crown in Spain,
That land I’ll loathe and always call ‘foe-reign’”.

The compound “salesman” was originally the compound “sails-man.” To relieve the kingdom of undesirables, Tudor monarchs would have these pests “man the sails” on merchant ships. Recognizing the economic benefits of shamelessness and dishonesty, the merchants often sent these “sails-men” into towns to vend wares. While the merchant tended to other business, the sails-men would try to sell goods at the market. The possibility of receiving a five-percent commission inspired many of the men to raise the art of the sales pitch to unprecedented levels.

Incidentally, the term “fire”—as in, “Let’s fire Johnny before he is eligible for a pension”—comes from the method used by merchants to ensure that sails-men returned with the profits and unsold goods. Sails-men were branded with a mark recognized throughout Europe. People who captured and returned escaped sails-men would receive a monetary reward, and the sails-men would earn an all-expenses-paid vacation to a burning pit; in other words, the sails-men would be “fired”.
A notable early use of the terms “sails-men” and “fire” appears in Tremblestaff’s Merchantman of Florence:

When sails-men giveth me all that is due,
Their prize will be a pretty pound or two.
But mark! If runneth they away with it,
‘Tis time to light a flaming, fiery pit.
Post nigh the ashes there enmired,
“Here lie some rascals who a merchant fired.”

Although the television was invented in the 20th century, the word “television”—originally the phrase “tell ye vision”—was coined centuries earlier by Henry VIII’s friend Tomas Morris. A passage in Morris’s pastoral allegory Mootopia mentions a device that would save people the effort of thinking through views or arriving at their own opinions. The device would tell one how to view all aspects of life; as one character in Mootopia says to another,
         With it to tell ye vision, you’ll need no eyes.
         It’ll tell ye, “Here you’ll love and there despise.”

Inventors in the 20th century were inspired by the idea of a product that they thought might increase economic productivity by reducing the amount of effort that people would need to put into thought. When trying to find a name more appealing than “idiot box,” inventors remembered Tomas Morris’s famous “Tell ye vision” couplet and decided that “television” had a nice ring.

3 thoughts on “Fun with Etymology (*Devil’s Derivations*)

  1. Pingback: “BARGAIN” | Miscellaneous Inanities

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