windowthroughtime

A wry view of life for the world-weary

All Change – Part Seven

logfire

Today, if we use the word garble it conveys the sense that something has been mixed up. He garbled his words such that the meaning of what he was saying was unintelligible to the listener. The word’s origin is probably Arabic, from the verb gharbal which was in common use around the first millennium and meant to sift or separate. It was typically used in connection with spices and dyestuffs. In late mediaeval Europe spices were imported from the Arabic-speaking eastern Mediterranean and invariably contained natural chaff residuals and some unnatural additions.

So the produce had to be sifted before it could be sold on, causing the verb garbele to enter the English language – the first recorded usage of which dates to 1393. The Italian verb, gherbellare, first used in 1321 and meaning to sift drugs and spices, shares the same origin. And garble continued to be used in the context of sifting until the 19th century until for some unaccountable reason its meaning was turned on its head.

From time to time many of us are guilty of using an expletive or two. Its modern meaning is associated with a swear word or some form of blasphemy which we use to show our displeasure or to spice up our language. The first recorded usage of expletive is attributed to Sir Walter Scott who wrote in Guy Mannering, published in 1815, “We omit here various execrations with which these honest gentlemen garnished their discourse, retaining only such of their expletives as are least offensive”.

But its original usage from around 1610 was to signify a word or phrase used to pad out a sentence or a metrical line, from the middle French expletive which, in turn, was derived from the Latin expletivus. So you can easily see how its sense moved from the general to the specific. Other than vigour and colour a swear word does not add anything to the sense of the sentence; it is merely padding.

Furniture is one of those portmanteau words which is used to describe a variety of similar objects, chairs, cupboards and tables. In the 16th century it was used adjectivally to describe large quantities as in this usage in a translation of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry of 1570, “great increase and furniture of knowledge”. The word comes from the Middle French fourniture which meant the act of furnishing. Perhaps the transition to meaning a collection of tables and chairs was simply picking up on the concepts of quantity and supply in the original word. We cannot be sure but, interestingly, English is the only language to use words derived from fourniture to describe furniture. In other languages the descriptor for furniture is derived from the Latin mobilis – for example, the French meuble.

Going back to work after all those New Year furniture sales may be welcome but you will probably find that you walk into a backlog. This word is used to describe a build-up of work or, more particularly, of unfulfilled orders. But this is a meaning it has had only since 1932 – was that the year that customer care became the vogue or was it the year that inefficiency first made an appearance? But the word’s origins were much more prosaic – it was used, principally in America and Canada, in the late 17th century to describe the largest log on a fire which was always put to the back. By the 1880s it was used figuratively to depict something stored for later use, just as the back log was the last to burn.

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