Was ‘Pocahontas’ Her Real Name?

Tuesdays are traditionally wordplay days over here, and my original intent was to do a short post on Dictionary.com’s word of the year, “complicit.” Then President Trump went and again referred to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and, as he does, changed the game.

So, real quick, here’s something I learned today, while researching the real-life woman we call Pocahontas: Pocahontas wasn’t her real name. Not really, at least.

Like many Powhatan Indians, “P” was given a series of names throughout the course of her life: her birth name was Matoaka, meaning “bright stream between the hills;” she was later given the name Amonute, which doesn’t translate from Powhatan to English; and later in life, after marrying John Rolfe and converting to Christianity, she changed her name to Rebecca.

According to Jamestown Secretary William Strachey, Pocahontas was a childhood nickname given to her by her father; translated to “little wanton,” it captured her adventurous independence. But according to William Stith, a 19th century historian who devoted his life to studying the Virginia colony, Pocahontas was something of a codename to ward of white curses. From his 1865 The History of the First Settlement of Virginia:

“The Indians carefully concealed [her real name] from the English and changed it to Pocahontas, out of a superstitious fear, lest they, by the knowledge of her true name, should be enabled to do her some hurt.”

As someone who just completed a book all about American myths, I understand this could be apocryphal; and it’s just as possible the name Pocahontas was both a childhood nickname and a curse deterrent. But if Stith’s correct and “Pocahontas” was something of a shield against vexation, then there’s a certain irony to Trump and his supporters using the sham sobriquet to slur Elizabeth Warren. The Powhatan prophecy came true, only for a woman by another name.

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

 

The Original Definition of “Harass” Is Most Apt

1. Harassment. We all know the word. Or, I hope we all know the word — just as I hope we all have a general sense of its meaning, something along the lines of Merriam-Webster’s definition of the verb “harass,” “to create an unpleasant or hostile situation…especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.” But this common conception is in fact the second, newer interpretation of the word; it’s original definition is both more and less specific and altogether appropriate in today’s context.

Briefly used in the 1610s as “to lay waste,” mainstream usage of “harass” shifted in the 1620s, veering toward “to vex by repeated attacks,” a definition derived from the 16th century French verb harasser, or “to tire out.” Though the specific origin of the French harasser remains hazy, the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests it comes from a mélange of harer, an Old French term for “to provoke or set a dog on,” and the equally Old French harier, as in “to draw [out] or drag [on].” In this light, “harassment” is tenacious and corrosive, pernicious and erosive. Defined by MW as “exhaust or fatigue,” harassment in this light is by definition perpetual and ongoing, a fact to which many women can attest.

Though the term “sexual harassment” didn’t arise until the early 1970s, the pairing of those two words couldn’t be more fitting. Women since time immemorial have been cat called and harangued, pinched and poked, raped and molested, and generally treated like objects by predatory men.* They have been tormented by repeated, caustic incidents like those we’re reading about on the daily. Thankfully, we’re seeing a backlash against such virulent behavior. All the repetitive and successive intrusions meant to erode women’s wherewithal have prepared them for this watershed moment we’re experiencing today. Now it’s time for men like Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Donald Trump, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose et al. to be vexed themselves.

(*I know it’s not only women who face harassment — Terry Crews and Tony Goldwyn have come forward with their own stories of being manhandled and verbally harassed, and half-a-dozen men have already accused Kevin Spacey of harassing and/or assaulting them — but women are harassed more often and openly than men.)

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

Collusion Is Not Innocuous

As a follow-up to last week’s etymological dissection of “meddling,” and inspired by all the real news about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, I decided this week to take a closer look at another word frequently used in these stories, “collusion,” as in this Newsweek headline from this morning: “Evidence of Trump-Russia Collusion Already Exists, Watergate Prosecutors Say.” Here’s what I found…

Used in its current form since the 14th century, the Old French “collusion” originates from the Latin collusionem, which comes from the verb colludere, an amalgamation of the prefix “com,” as in “with” or “together,” and ludere, which means “to play” and is the same root for ludicrous. Married into one term, “com” and “ludere” mean, loosely, “coming together to play.”

It almost seems innocuous, and even jocular. We of course know otherwise. As legendary English lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler noted, “The notion of fraud or underhandedness is essential to collusion.”

For more Fun with Words, click HERE.

“Symbolaton,” a Failed Neologism

My first book hit stores this week. Called  The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, it traces American history via uses and cultural representations of our nation’s favorite hard wood, the titular log cabin. It’s a fun and informative little tome — and, most importantly, it’s filled with hundreds of awesome images.

Three years in the making, the projects’ impetus came in part from my own bafflement over how the log cabin became such a beloved symbol: What forces shaped our collective national consciousness to make us so blindly, unquestioningly adore what is essentially a stack of sticks? The answers are in the book. What’s not in the book? The word “symbolaton.”

An amalgamation of “symbol” and “automaton,” the term was meant to be a neologism meaning, roughly, “an automatic symbol,” i.e.: an object or totem that Americans worship without considering why or how — kind of like the national anthem or the pledge of the allegiance. [I guess my work has a theme, huh?]

Unfortunately, “symbolaton” doesn’t quite work because “automaton” means, literally “self-motion,” which gives the impression that the log cabin is moving by its own will, its own power. Though the structure indeed took on a life of its own over the years, and was certainly axiomatically perpetuated in America, the locution lacked the precision I sought. It’s close, but not cigar.

The term “symbolicon” was also thrown around in my noggin and then tossed out, largely because it doesn’t really mean anything, and so too was the phrase “zombie icon,” which comes closest to what I hoped to convey but which still didn’t make the cut. Oh well.

But even though there are no neologisms in The Log Cabin: An Illustrated History, it’s still an entertaining and — gasp! — educational read. Please check it out.

And for more Fun with Words, click HERE.

‘Meddling’ Once Meant ‘Screwing’

“Russian meddling.” We hear the term a lot in stories about how Vladimir Putin and company interfered with the 2016 election that installed Donald Trump in the White House. But what is meddling?

Merriam-Webster defines it as “interest[ing] oneself in what is not one’s concern,” or, “to interfere without right or propriety,” but if we go back to the word’s first vernacular explosion, the early 1300s, it’s defined as “to mingle and blend,” from the 12th century Old French “mesler,” which itself evolved from the Latin word “miscere,” to mix. The present participle version we currently use, “action of blending,” didn’t arise until the 1520s.

But, fun fact — and, I think, fitting in this context — from the late 1300s until the 1700s, “meddling” was slang for “having sexual intercourse,” or, another way, “fucking.” As with the roots of “Trump,” this seems more appropriate for the Russia-related headlines, as in “Russia fucked with the election.”

For more Fun with Words, click HERE.

Donald Trump is the Definition of “Trump” (Old French)

While we’re on the subject of the English language, let’s talk about “Trump.”

When used as a verb, U.S. president Donald Trump’s surname is most often interpreted as “to surpass” or “to beat,” a terminology familiar from card games. Such usage  was popularized in the 1580s, when Middle English reigned, and which traces its origins to around the 1520s, when “to trump” was first used as “to triumph.” But this is not the first “ to trump,” and while Donald Trump undoubtedly prefers this dominant definition, the first, which is worse, is far more fitting — and French!

Continue reading