What’s in a word? They’re much more than just arrangements of letters used to communicate. In every word there is a fascinating history if you dig deep enough. Etymology is like the genetic science of language. It peers into words at a cellular level and uncovers truths, myths and rumours about how our language came to be – and how it continues to evolve before our very ears.
Stereotype and Cliché
Today’s meanings: Stereotype is the predetermined perception of something (usually about people and usually discriminatory). Cliché is an expression used so many times it becomes tired and needs to lie down for a while.
‘Stereotype’ (Greek origin) is literally: ‘solid impression’, which was why it was adopted by the the blossoming printing trade in late 18th Century France to describe the metal plates that stamped ‘type’ (ink) onto paper. Since it was used to produce the same type repetitively, so became the use of ‘stereotype’ to mean an impression reinforced by repetition.
‘Cliché’ (French) was a more colloquial term for these plates coined by the French printing press workers for the soft clicking noise made by the molten metal as it was being poured into a stereotype mould. So, in a literal sense, a cliché is the creation of a stereotype.
Only those lazy, cheese-eating, riot-loving frogs could have come up with that!
Today’s meaning: a programmable device to perform a particular task – usually repeatedly – usually repeatedly – usually repeatedly.
In 1920, Czech sci-fi pioneer, Karl Capek, penned the futuristic play R.U.R that went on to influence generations of sci-fi writers – and possibly even predict the outcome of civilisation itself.
Capek’s work was the original tale of technology-assisted apocalypse. Human science and industry led to the invention of human-like drone workers, which Capek called ‘robots’, This term derived from robotnik which means ‘slave’ in his native Czech tongue. The rest is cliche – ,these robots begin to have thoughts and feelings, they soon realise humans are taking advantage of them, they blow a few fuses and proceed to destroy all humans. It’s a cliche tale now, but eerily becoming less fictional than Capek’s original intention … You may want to be careful with how loosely you say the ‘r’ word around your indentured microwave…
Today’s meaning: to purposefully destroy or disable something in spite. Usually because they didn’t like, comment and subscribe to you on Youtube.
In the tech boom of the late 18th century, the invention of the mechanised loom heralded one of the first times in history that large-scale human redundancy jolted society. These hulking machines could manufacture textiles with robotic efficiency and replaced many thousands of angry workers almost overnight – much to their displeasure. In France, those suddenly deprived of income for cheese and cigarettes particularly got le merdes, and in their revolt a new word was born.
They clamoured to smash up the evil looms, but were unable to get close enough with hammers or bats. So, they so pitched a ranged battle, taking off their weird wooden shoes (called sabots) and hurling them over barricades and into the fragile guts of the machines. For this, they were labelled saboteurs and eventually the word ‘sabotage’ entered the English lexicon. Interestingly ‘clog’ – another weird wooden shoe, is now also used for when something blocks something else – like a shoe ‘clogging’ up a loom…
Today’s Meaning: huge. Like, really yuge.
The word ‘jumbo’ was not originally a word, but an elephant. Jumbo the elephant, the most famous elephant that ever lived, was an enormous specimen who was snatched from the African plains (where it’s thought the local word for elephant was ‘jumbo’) in the 1860s by spectacle-magnate and kind-of-a-bastard P.T. Barnum. Barnum took jumbo around France, England and North America for gasping crowds to witness – for a small fee, of course. Jumbo was so big, even for an elephant, that his name was eventually used to describe the enormity of passenger jets, slurpees and unnecessarily large post-it notes
Sadly, poor Jumbo met his demise when he was hit by a train. According to Barnum it was whilst trying save a fellow circus elephant – but more likely in an attempt to sabotage his overlords. In his enormous stomach they found a number of pennies, keys, metal tools and even a police whistle. Those objects were normal sized, though.
Today’s meaning: an item or piece of information that might hint at the solution to a problem. Only found using a magnifying glass.
The clue to the origin of the word Clue is in its derivation from the medieval word ‘clew’, meaning ball of thread. If you’re into classical Greek reality TV, you may recall the episode of ‘I’m a Corinthian, get me out of here!’, where Theseus went to Crete to slay a jumbo bull-man called a minotaur with a fancy sword. First, though, he had to descend into an epic labyrinth to find the beast, and getting out would have been impossible had it not been for his mate Ariadne.
She handed him a ball of thread – described by Medieval translators as a clew – to trace his way back through the spaghettian maze. By following the trail of thread he left behind, Theseus returned victorious and ‘clue’ eventually became associated with finding your way to a solution. And then onwards to Athens for wine-fuelled orgy times.
Today’s meaning: the purest or most typical example of a thing.The most thing thing.
Everyone who watched Captain Planet knows earth, water, fire and wind are the fundamental elements (no, ‘Heart’ doesn’t count – the monkey did most the work, anyway). This notion dates back to ancient times long before we knew of molecules, quarks and bosons.
By the Middle Ages, however, philosophers began to suspect there was undiscovered element that was even more important that the other four. It was a fifth-essence, or ‘quintessence’ to use the contemporary language, and the idea of it blew peoples’ tiny medieval minds. Although this theory was soon crushed under the boot of physics and the scientific method, it provided a clue to deep thinkers of the time that there was more to the universe that met the eye. Like someone microwaving fish in an office, the quintessence was that which was unseen, but permeated all nature and comprised all things – today we call it ‘dark energy’…
Today’s meaning: an adjective for someone who is well-presented, suave and urbane. A Rolex timepiece and grey on the temples helps too.
Close your eyes and think of the word ‘debonair. You might find a certain pleasant and inoffensive fragrance dancing by your minds’ nostril. It makes sense since the word that now is used to describe the quintessentially handsome and suave descends from old French – and broken down, it literally translates to: ‘of good air’.
In the Middle Ages, folks would judge one another’s healthiness partly by how they smelled. So, a person emanating a pleasing musk was “of good air” and presumed to be healthier and happier than the average peasant. A person who reeked was shunned and labelled ‘of Lynx Africa.’.
“Nothing defines humans better than their willingness to do irrational things in the pursuit of phenomenally unlikely payoffs”. Know who said that? Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon strip Dilbert.
I hate Dilbert…
The ancient Greeks believed that universal truths could only be discovered by humans through disciplined logic, and anything else was merely opinion moulded by emotion or sensorial experience. It was the likes of Plato who drew the line in the cultural sands that separated science and art, diverging humankind’s avenues of self-discovery into two lanes running opposite directions: rational and irrational. Art, it was believed, existed to express emotion, the mortal flaw that impeded pure science. For millennia philosophers posited that each of us was eternally engaged in internal civil wars between our two hemispheres, and the struggle influenced your personality, intelligence and behaviour. To act rationally or irrationally was dictated by whichever side at that moment had the upper hand in the battle for dominion over you.
Modern philosophy and psychology has refuted the simplicity of this divide, and say that it is impossible to remove emotion from our understanding of the world. All information we take in must enter through our senses and be processed by our minds. This immediately creates a new, unique version of the same ‘truth’, a version that will always be exclusive to us because of our individual cognitive bias. At this point, we don’t understand why or how or the extent to which emotion influences our every thought – but it could be that irrationality is not illogical, but a force of reasoning we don’t yet understand. The 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal explained it with typically beautiful Enlightenment-era lyricism: “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know”.
So like it or not, irrational moods will invade our thoughts at every turn, as if malevolent gremlins were short-circuiting our brain’s fuses and stirring up trouble in the dark, void of sensibility. It happens to us all, with different triggers and different consequences. The better adjusted of us tend to be able to mask our inner raging, but it doesn’t erase it – we are at the mercy of the chemical emissions of our brains.
British author A N Wilson, who has written biographies on Hitler, Tolstoy and Jesus, could probably describe irrationality with some authority. He said, “the fact that logic cannot satisfy us awakens an almost insatiable hunger for the irrational”. To me, that suggests irrationality is the only thing left standing when tempestuous surges of emotion whip up a violent storm in your mind; when conventional logic is too weak to calm the fury – but irrationality offers an alternative course of action, perhaps one more satisfying and irresistible, but forbidden under normal circumstances. Only the mightiest emotions can spark such drama. Love and hate, the inextricably linked polar extremes of emotion, constantly send waves of fear, or altruism, or anger to test the strength of our logic. Under such pressure, rationality can crumble to the ground and momentarily alter how we think, act and re-act.
Love’s enduring mystique owes its existence to irrationality. It was the inspiration that pushed Oscar Wilde’s pen to paper and Van Gogh’s brush to canvas (and later a pair of scissors to his ear), There wouldn’t be such a thing as a music industry if it weren’t for the strange powers wielded by love. Nobody sang the blues because they missed a bus… Hate and anger are different; they at least appear to follow a brusque logic of cause and effect. Every one of us has an exhaustive list of pet peeves, which we feel are justified when it’s someone else’s actions that pulls the trigger and provokes an emotional, ‘irrational’ response.
Well, not always. We don’t love and hate exclusively people. We can, illogically, get disproportionately angry at things like the weather, traffic, insects, TV ads, or jammed printers. But, even when we’re in a calmer state of mind and know this anger is wayward and futile; it doesn’t prevent the same emotional impulses from regrouping and launching another offensive to once again make the irrational seem rational. Shouting at the clouds for raining won’t stop it raining, but it feels good to it.
But, it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. We aren’t robots yet, not as long as we there exists this element within us that challenges cold logic and gifts us individuality, passions, awareness and an experience we can only describe as ‘human’.
Seven Things I Love Irrationally Hating
Strangers walking alongside me
It seems every time I hit the streets, say for a stroll to the park, or a brisk walk to the shops, or even a languid strut to the local malt bar and pool hall – at some point someone will suddenly appear out of nowhere and walk alongside me at precisely the same speed, like the sidekick I never wanted. It’s a fist-clenchingly infuriating situation that only ever occurs when I’m at full stride, going where I need to go. Someone will exit a shop, step off a bus, or simply materialise next to me, and then match me step for step as we both walk along like some sort of estranged couple.
It imposes a very unwanted dilemma: do the unthinkable and break my (SONG) stride to slow down and find some personal space; or accelerate my already-lightning quick walking pace and charge ahead. Obviously my pride vetos option one, so I end up power-walking too quickly for comfort, trying pathetically to make my awkward getaway look completely natural.
Even slow-moving walkers, nuisances they are, can at least be navigated with my superior agility and skilful eye for emerging foot-traffic patterns. It’s actually fun sometimes. But I absolute hate when I’m made to engage in some weird, unspoken walking footrace with some stranger – and it’s usually someone intrinsically weird, like a rambling hobo. It’s so infuriating sometimes that I have to breathe deeply to rein in my urge to shoulder-barge my unwanted walking companion into oncoming traffic.
Keys are like cellular organisms, you begin with one, which becomes two, and then three, four and more and more. Try as you might, you cannot prevent the gradual evolution of your keychain into a huge, jangly cluster of stainless steel. Nor can you prevent the inevitable frustration that comes with each attempt to find the one key you need in amongst the ball-o-plenty.
On principle, I dislike the concept of keys. Think about it, if the world was full of good people, we wouldn’t need to lock up our belongings and install bank-vault security systems in our homes and cars. But no, people are disrespectful, pilfering, selfish jerks and because of them I need to carry and guard a collection of jaggedy metal things to access my own belongings. Fine, but as time ticks away when I stand in the dark outside my door, rifling through 27,000 identical jaggedy metal things to find the correct jaggedy metal thing to open the fucking thing, crankiness rises exponentially. I’m there, I’m home… yet, I’m not. Because my house, my home – the domicile I pay for and dwell in – doesn’t believe it’s really me until I produce the one magical jaggedy metal thing, which looks and feels like all the other jaggedy metal things. It’s next-level frustration. The digital revolution is coming way too slowly here; where are the robot doormen already!? Unacceptable.
Crappy sandwich ‘artists’
Ah yes, the esteemed Royal College of Sandwich Artistry, the famous RCSA, where pupils learn the intricate artful skills associated with stuffing ingredients between two slices of bread, and occasionally toasting it. Unfortunately, the RSCA’s quality learning standards have slipped lately, because there are too many Subway ‘sandwich artists’ who simply can’t (or won’t) do what I want. They never tessellate cheese for maximum coverage; and they interpret my order of ‘extra’ chipotle sauce to be equivalent to the annual rainfall of the Atacama Desert .This is undeniably annoying for anyone, but to me, this is a blood sin. If I pay $12 for a sandwich, I damned well better get a sandwich with a geometrically-efficient covering of cheese and so much chipotle sauce that I’ll need scuba gear to eat it. Anything less and the ‘sandwich artist’ responsible deserves to be personally wedged between two unevenly sliced pieces of bread, covered with one miserly piece of cheese and put into an oven for too long.
Whenever I find myself slumped in a seat, surrounded by work colleagues for one of those unique rituals of modern torture known as ‘meetings’, the only feeling that overpowers the urge to doze off, is pure dread. Dread for the inevitable cringe that I can’t escape. A moment I know is nigh when John Jones*, Junior Vice Assistant Regional Accounts Manager, draws a breath and raises a finger. When that happens, I literally** feel my internal organs wincing as if to brace for a thumping body blow, because I know that very soon I’ll be subjected to the verbal sewage that I absolutely cannot bear; the language they call ‘Managementspeak’.
I get so incensed by words like ‘synergy’ and ‘actionable’ and ‘liaise’, that whenever I hear them I want to stand up and fling myself out the nearest window to freedom. But seeing as careers and employment are kind of an important things, I instead sink, defeated, into my chair and twist my rage silently inward. So, now my strategy to cope in meetings is to fantasise about the productive synergy that is actioned when John Jones’ face liaises with a heavy sticky-tape dispenser.* fictional name. This in no way represents any actual John Joneses of the world. Except the ones who are jerks. In that case – screw you Joneses. You jerks.
People sucking lollies
I’ve seen a lot of things on public transport. I’ve seen fistfights break out between cadaverously thin junkies in bizarre love triangles; I’ve seen a grown man picking his toes and flicking the crusty yellow nails willy-nilly; I’ve seen human shit smeared over seats like a po-mo art exhibition that is way-too-po-mo. I’ve even seen a bare-breasted elderly woman attempt to get on the train against the wishes of the rather embarrassed station staff. But nothing, and I honestly mean NOTHING puts me right off public transport more than being stuck sitting in front of someone and be subjected to the disconcerting, disgusting sounds of their saliva, sucking and slurping away on a lolly of some sort.
Trains are nothing more than prison cells on wheels. Comfort is an afterthought to cramming the maximum amount of sweaty bodies inside a metal tube, and shooting it along rails from point to point while the sardine-people inside stand impassive with blank stares etched on the faces, surrounded by the breath of strangers circulating like a stifling, ghostly presence. I can juuuuust cope with that.
Ironically, my worst experiences arise on the less-crowded occasions, where I have a seat to myself, the journey is silent, and I optimistically believe I might actually have an enjoyable trip reading my book or doing my crossword. Of course I’m never so lucky. Before long, some horrible, knuckle-dragging simpleton will appear, and, when presented with a carriage full of empty seats, plonk themselves in the one directly behind mine. It’s as if they can’t be confortable unless they have my seat to wedge their knees into or my neck to breathe on. That’s bad enough, but then out comes a lolly and the torture begins. Like a starving piglet on a Starburst teat, they destroy my serenity with the unnerving sound of suckling and slurping and squeaking spittle. By all rights, I can’t be mad at them for choosing that seat or eating a lolly… but then again, sometimes I wish they’d choke. Just a little bit.
Anyone entering the bathroom while I’m poopin’
Unless you’re a 90s British pop icon with two first names, public toilets are not usually a place you want to spend much time in. When nature calls and it’s your bowel on the line, a public toilet is the last begrudging resort. With luck, you’ll walk right in and find the place magnificently deserted; naught but a dripping tap and a broken hand-drier. In the solace of soulless silence, you can complete your mission and make your escape without anyone knowing. The good old-fashioned ninja poo. Such fortune is unfortunately rare and most likely you’ll hear the disheartening sound of a door opening, followed by someone else trudging in.
You can’t see them, but my god with every twitching fibre in the organic assembly of living cells you call a body, you bloody well loathe them. At home you have full privacy and can poop with stress-free abandon, but here, from your flimsy little stall you become acutely conscious of someone else’s presence. It’s an uncomfortable experience exacerbated by the knowledge that they themselves are acutely conscious of you, too. For that reason you hate them. It’s obviously quite unfair and hypocritical to hate someone for walking into a public bathroom, but when your pants are around your ankles and you’re engaged in the most vulnerable of human acts (no, not that one, jitterbug), rationality such as this does not factor into the equation.
And so you play… the waiting game…
This is probably more about the symptoms of my early onset grumpy-old-manism than being irrational, but I have a special contempt for attention-seekers – particularly those people who believe their identity is all about the look. I don’t mean being fashion-conscious, or having offbeat taste; I’m talking exclusively about motive here. As in, why would a 22-year-old man carry a Dora the Explorer backpack around? Or why would anyone wear a cape anywhere outside of a comic book or a Phantom of the Opera production? It’s those who deliberately invent some superficial affectation to try and stand out from the crowd – not because they are bold individuals, but because they want people to think that they are. They completely miss the point that quirks and eccentricities are only charming or interesting when they are the by-product of personality, not some eye-catching centrepiece. And it’s never ironic, it’s always gauche.
The same goes for getting tattooed for fashion, or to look tough and menacing – the motive is so self-serving that even if there was some thoughtful meaning behind the ink, it’s spoiled by the owner’s vanity. As the most good-looking and consummately super-excellent person on the planet, I deplore ego and vanity. It’s disappointing to see that the river which swallowed Narcissus is now choked with soggy tiger onesies, lensless glasses, fake British accents and casual bow ties. It surely isn’t too hard to just be who you are and let the rest take care of itself. That isn’t irrational. Wishing a flaming meteor would plummet to earth and flatten the dude who wears a cape, though, might be a little.
Haters gonna hate…
My face has hair growing out of it. Like, heaps of hair… and I’m allow it. I welcome it. Why? I don’t know. Why does any man do it? No-one really knows…
For the entire existence of civilised man, the question of what to do with all that facial hair has been answered in as many dynamic and changeable ways as fashion itself. Some cultures encouraged it, some mandated it, some strictly forbade it and others didn’t really give a crap one way or the other. The facial hirsute pursuit has represented many things over time – wisdom; strength; savagery; reindeer-riding gift-giving, piracy; eccentricity; rock’n’roll; authority; free love; geography teaching; vagrancy; outlawdom; indestructibility… Yet, at the end of the day, as it was at the start of the day (albeit a teeny bit longer), it’s literally just hair that grows out of your face, which is really weird when you think about it.
Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian men were famously fussy over their facial follicles. They decorated their beards with jewels, dyed them and even used heated tongs as rudimentary curling irons to really get it looking high-street reem. Similarly the Greeks, Celts, ancient Indians and Chinese also bestowed beards with pride and honour. It wasn’t until the Macedonians and Imperial Romans rose to power that the clean shave was popularised; Alexander the Great didn’t want to present enemy soldiers with something to yank on in battle, while the Romans were plain sick of getting unruly strands snagged in their toga clips.
For most of the middle and renaissance ages, beards were pretty much exclusive chic for pirates, conquistadors and village idiots. But in the late 1800s, the Western world went mental with beards again. It was an experimental age, when beards, moustaches and sideburns of all shapes, sizes, colours and combinations sprouted on the faces of men in a starkly flamboyant contrast to their drab, same-same clothing. Abe Lincoln, Karl Marx, Johann Strauss II, Charles Dickens… these dudes dedicated their lives to pushing political and cultural frontiers, and their faces to pushing beardly boundaries.
But, it didn’t last very long and by the 1950s, squeaky clean faces, tucked-in shirts and armpit-chaffing beige slacks were the norm. An errand follicle on the chin would certainly scupper your chances to take Suzy down to the malt bar and ask her to go steady. But of course, this suppression of will bottled up until the 60s, when rock’n’roll, peace and a preference for hallucinogens over hygiene influenced many a young man to bin the Bic razor and pick up a headband instead. But once again, another wave of social sensibilities intervened and the popularity of the beard was trimmed back, taking lava lamps and sitar music with it.
The post-millennium years have been an ongoing experiment with minimalist beardom, inspiring countless variations of goatees, chinstraps, soul-patches and the like. (Some idiot coined it as ‘manscaping’ and the ‘metrosexual’ movement, but I maintain it was the hidden effect of Y2K that led to some genuinely shit facial hairstyles). More recently, hipsters have borrowed from their late 19th century forefathers with terrible po-mo mo’s and bushranger beards. And then there’s a perennial favourite of the decade – the manageably manly; the comfortable fashionable; the studly stubble.
So, as the ebbing and flowing tides of history have washed up ever-evolving trends and fashions, so too has it shaped endless interpretations of the beard. But for all the time we’ve spent cultivating, cropping and shaving the hair on our faces, we’re still yet to come up with an answer as to why human men grow them at all.
On the face of it (ha), there is no discernible reason or evolutionary advantage to a beard. If anything, I’d assume that natural selection would’ve figured out that thousands of long, extremely flammable stands of kindling attached to your face wasn’t ideal for a species whose burgeoning existence was heavily dependent on fire.
But, we survived – beards lovingly intact.
The popular theory follows a general rule in the animal kingdom: that any physical feature not key to survival is more or less to attract a mate. Facial hair growth begins at puberty, so it probably is a mammalian signal of sexual maturity – but one completely outmoded now. I’ve read plenty of those specious ‘according to a recent study…‘ articles in the content-starved sections of newspapers that suggest beards are a primal display of virility – a kind of lion’s mane. But never have I seen a gorgeous woman sitting across the dinner table from Professor Dumbledore… so perhaps that theory isn’t so relevant today, especially not now when there are flat-brimmed caps, iPhones, mirrors and Instagram accounts to boast reproductive prowess.
Whatever its original purpose, a beard is now just another aspect of our bodies that assists us in self-expression. Quite a significant one, as Marion Dowd (someone smarter than I) points out, “The decision to wear a beard is often deliberate and may denote a man’s religious, political, cultural, social or sexual affiliation. Beards—or their removal—can serve to conceal or reveal and thus in the past may have been linked to concepts of transformation, disguise, metamorphosis or exposure.”
Simply because it’s there, a fact of our biology, we impose our manipulative will upon it and invent meaning for it. We are quite adept at that. Humans rarely see a tree and know it merely as large, leafy vegetation. We may see it as a sacred place, or a bountiful gift from mother earth, or even an elegant symbolism of the phenomenon of life itself. It has to be more than meets the eye. That’s human intelligence doing what it does best: overthinking. Because, it’s a tree. A tree. A life-form slowly travelling a path of evolution that has led it to be what it is now, a big solar-powered organism filled with chlorophyll. Similarly, we’ve assigned too much meaning and importance to the beard – which is, after all, a cluster of hair that grows out of your face, something that was probably once meant to trap flies for dinner.
Even so, facial hair is least pretty nifty even if they it’s essentially useless to us and ultimately meaningless. In all iterations, be it a dense forest of dangly hair-vines; a patchy smattering of fluffy whisps; or the neck-straddling facial moss of that guy who works in every single company’s IT department – a beard is a strange thing, and therefore a wonderful thing. It’s an odd inheritance from our ancestors, a thing that we have no idea what we’re supposed to do with. We’ve just winged it and made it up as we’ve gone along the past few millennia. And that has worked out pretty well, I think. If the beard offers me the opportunity, should I wish to make the effort, to look like a wise philosopher, or a daring pirate, or a desperately avoidable crazy vagabond – then it’s pretty awesome and not so useless after all.
I’m still yet to decide what to do with my little fledgling beard. I haven’t noticed any increased attention from the opposite sex, and no more than the usual number of pilgrims haven’t sought me out for sage counsel… so I look no sexier nor wiser with a beard. Just lazier I suppose. I could chop it back to its default stubbly setting, or I could really let it go and impress my friends and colleagues with a fierce, tri-pronged, platted forkbeard. I could go clean cut and shaven (and subsequently take advantage of 15-years-and-younger train ticket discounts), or I could even hark back to my high-school days and attempt to rock some embarrassingly abysmal patchy sideburns. Who knows?
Or maybe Ill invent my own interpretation… corn-row beard anyone? Why not – gotta do something with it!