It was Theseus in the Labyrinth with the Ball of String

Nowadays, we know a “clue” to be something that reveals information or serves to solve a problem. However, there is quite a yarn to be spun as to how we got here.

You see, “clue” is an orthographical shift from a Middle English term, “clewe”, and Old English “cleowen” before that, which translates as a ball of yarn. This can be traced back to Proto-Germanic and has modern parallels with German and Dutch words – which is why we might not expect the origin to come from Greek mythology.

According to the myth, on the island of Crete, there was a labyrinth in which dwelled a half-man, half-bull creation called the Minotaur. This creature was the offspring of the king of Crete, Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, and a bull – no, me neither – and naturally the former wasn’t too pleased about this genetic cocktail. Naturally, a hero pops up to deal with said beast, Theseus.

It was well established that finding one’s way through the labyrinth was a bit confusing, ergo Ariadne, daughter of Minos, supplied Theseus with a ball of string with which he could leave a trail to find his way back out. Retrospectively, English speakers later on would refer to this ball of string as a ““clewe” and so it begins.

As a side note, “Minotaur” comes from “Minos” (eponymous with the chap himself) and Greek “Tauros”, meaning “bull” – not to be confused with your zodiac sign, which is actually Latin.

It is from this kind of specific context and particular meaning that words often develop symbolic connotations, and in this case that meant that the little ball of yarn came to represent a helping hand in all manner of mysteries and malfunctions, becoming the term we use today.

The first known usage of “clue” with its modern definition comes in the rather verbose Logick: Or, The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry after Truth by Isaac Watts in 1724;

When the Reader is passing over such a Treatise, he often finds a wide Vacancy, and makes an uneasy Stop, and knows not how to transport his Thoughts over to the next Particular, for Want of some Clue or connecting Idea to lay hold of.

Isaac Watts, 1724

Sympathy or Empathy – It’s All Greek to Us

The words “sympathy” and “empathy” began their nascent existence in Classical Greece, and as you might expect based on that alone, their disparity is wholly philosophical and a little on the subtle side.

Sympathy originates from Greek “sumpatheia”, stemming from “sun” and “pathos”. This literally translates to “with feeling”.

Empathy, on the other hand, shares “pathos” but replaces the prefix with “em”, meaning “in”, to create “empatheia”, or, “in feeling”.

This is logical as empathy is the ability to understand someone’s situation, typically from first-hand experience or exposure – “in feeling”. Whereas sympathy is a little more detached, which means to have pity, sorrow or concern for someone, yet not necessarily true understanding of what they’re experiencing.

“Sympathy” reaches us in English through a string of Latinate languages, from Greek into Latin “sympathīa“, from Latin into Middle French “sympathie” and finally, by the late 16th Century, into “sympathy” that we use today.

“Empathy”, however, doesn’t seem to have been an English word until the late-19th or early-20th Century (first printed in 1909). This coincides with the theory of “Einfühlung“, first printed in 1873, which was a German term that expanded on the definition of “empathy” to include feelings towards the world around them in addition to human emotion, most notably at the time, this was applied to artwork and literature.

Equally, we gain “apathy” (“apatheia” – “without feeling”) and “antipathy” (“antipatheia” – against feeling”) through this transitive ladder of Greek, Latin and then French. Even “telepathy”, with “tele” meaning “distant” or “at a distance”.

So there you have it; the two words are not exactly interchangeable, although I’m sure all but the most ardent pedants would forgive you for mistaking one for the other from time to time.

Talking Turkey

Less inquisitive people would most likely dismiss the connection between turkeys and Turkey, the country, as mere coincidence. Someone once told me that Turkey was named after the New World bird, although considering that the nation’s name can predated to at least 1369 in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess, the bird was not discovered by Europeans until Columbus’ 1493 expedition.

The link itself is somewhat more tenuous, and actually pertains to guinea fowl.

You see, helmeted guinea fowl were considered to be a bit of a food trend in medieval Europe. They were imported from Madagascar through Turkey, then part of the Ottoman Empire, via the Mediterranean Sea.

The merchants that brought this species to Europe were often referred to as “Turkey merchants”, which is the first point in which the perception turns fowl. Sorry. This term initially referred to the homeland of the merchants and not their cargo, just to be clear, however this appears to have fallen into a misconception among some that the birds themselves were called turkeys, with the terms “turkey hen” and “Turkish chicken” being used to describe guinea fowl frequently at the time.

Fast forward one perilous seafaring expedition, and Christopher Columbus has happened upon the New World with all its exciting new produce such as tobacco, potatoes and, my oh my, a species of bird domesticated by the Aztecs that had an uncanny resemblance to the guinea fowl.

Introduced to England by the 1530s, this new bird was mistakenly also given the name “turkey”, due to a mixture of physical similarity, tastiness and also being a reasonably new, exotic discovery.

The Turks, just to be wrong in their own way, called guinea fowl “hindi” due to an inexplicable misconception that the bird came from the east, in India.

Letting the Cat Out of the Bag

To let the cat out of the bag is an idiom, meaning to reveal a secret, and the best theory we have of its origin stems from a pig in a poke. Don’t panic, I’ll explain that one, too.

A pig in a poke is another idiom, meaning a product that is bought in packaging, thus the contents are not visible to the buyer upon purchase. The name itself derives from purchasing suckling pigs at markets, which were kept in bags or sacks – or a “poke” – to prevent them from escaping. “Poke” comes from the French “poque“, which is where we get “pouch” and “pocket”.

The theory being that people were sold such bags under the pretence that inside were juicy, delicious suckling pigs when, in fact, they were being sold an incredibly less valuable cat. The “letting the cat out of the bag” being the wholly too-late realisation of the customer that they had been scammed into buying said cat, and therefore the fraudster’s secret coming to light.

This is referred to by John Heywood in 1555, who wrote;

I wyll neuer bye the pyg in the poke Thers many a foule pyg in a feyre cloke

John Heywood, 1555

There are translations in French, Dutch and German for this idiom, indicating that it was a common enough scam throughout European societies.

This version has faced much criticism, simply because it seems someone would have to be rather dense to mistake a cat for a piglet – the Spanish equivalent seems more plausible, “dar gato por liebre“, “giving a cat instead of a hare”.

The idiom itself has no record until 1760, however, and saw a surge in usage throughout the late 18th Century, which implies that it was a new-fangled thing.

Although we may not know for a certainty where the phrase came from, one thing is certain…

Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.

Will Rogers

The Etymology of Decimation

The “correct” usage of “decimation” has been a point of contention in the linguistic community for some time, sparking debate between stiff-necked prescriptivists and carefree descriptivists on what it actually means.

As with all etymology, it’s easiest to begin with, you got it, the beginning. Decimation as far as the English language is concerned, first stems from the Latin “decimus“, meaning a tenth. “Decimāre” stems from this, meaning to take or offer a tenth part – most commonly confused as strictly associated with the Roman military punitive measure of “decimatio“, whereby insubordinate or cowardly cohorts of a legion drew a lottery. One out of every ten straws were shorter than the others, sentencing that legionary to be beaten, stoned or stabbed to death by his comrades. This practice grew rarer after Rome transitioned from republic to empire, and rarer still after its fall: however there are instances as late as WWII, where Soviet commanders utilised the method during the Battle of Stalingrad (1942-3) to tackle desertion rates.

Albeit, with this presumption in mind, it is also important to note that the influences leading to the term in English include “decima“, a tithe or to tithe. A tithe is a levying of money or produce from an area to the state or, most commonly in 16th Century Europe when the term “decimate” was first recorded, to a religious body. The word “tithe”, synonymous with this meaning of decimation, has a similar origin in that it stems from the Old English “teogoþa“, again, translating as a “tenth”. A later example of this is in 1655, whereby Cromwell implemented his “Decimation Tax”, aimed at Royalists post-English Civil War to fund a homeland militia, equating to ten percent of their income.

It is curious to note that the Latinate “decimate” is widely considered archaic and obsolete, whereas the Germannic-origin “tithe” remains rare yet relevant. This is most likely due to certain religious institutions retaining the term and curious preference of the term in historic referencing. At least there will always be decimals.

The first recorded use of decimate’s destructive meaning in English wasn’t until considerably later, in the 1660s and this time, the definition seems to have shifted toward “to destroy a large but indefinite amount of” which coincides with the popular modern perception of the word. Some speculate that this may have stemmed from a misconception that the meaning was “to reduce to one tenth” rather than “to reduce by one tenth”, and this remains cited as an archaic definition of the word in many places.

Another theory is that the word, over time, has become entwined with “devastate” – again, Latinate, stemming from “de-“, “thoroughly” and “-vastare“, “lay waste”. This is first recorded in the English lexicon at a similar time to the comparable meaning of “decimate”, which leads me to believe that this is a viable confusion made at the time which has had permanent effect on the definition.

It is important to note that language inevitably evolves due to a variety of circumstances over time, predominantly due to connotations – these are ideas and feelings exuded from a word, as opposed to their literal meaning (denotation), which warps the manner in which we perceive it.

Reflecting on this, the staunch prescriptivists certainly have a leg to stand on in insisting that decimation relates to destroying or taking one tenth, yet that doesn’t stop their interpretation bordering on archaic anyway. Language is inconsistent and fickle, and is only as correct as how your average person uses it.