A friend who shall remain nameless has been nagging me mercilessly about how I don’t blog anymore. Well, not mercilessly. And perhaps “nagging” is too strong a word. She gives me a gentle nudge every few weeks. It’s just my guilt that has blown it into titanic proportions. Until this week I had written nothing since last December, and even then the last few posts were interesting things I had found here or there; I wasn’t actually writing anything.
I want to write about my mother, who is dying by inches. I want to talk about how her mind, or rather her Mind (to put it in a Buddhist context), is keeping her from getting better, keeping her from enjoying life, despite the counsel and clear statements of several physicians. She was always a pessimist; now she’s teaching me how one’s mindset utterly controls one’s health and well-being. I want to talk about her anhedonia, a beautiful word for a soul-sucking condition where you don’t find pleasure in anything. It’s like apathy but sadder.
But instead of writing about my mother, today I am choosing to write about my love of etymology. I have always loved words. Mostly English words, but back when I was studying Greek and Hebrew, a friend saw me with a book on the derivation of Greek words used in religious scholarly texts. He said, “Boy, I’ll bet that’s pretty dry!” I laughed; I actually used it as pleasure reading. I devoured arcane etymological discussion like popcorn.
The other night Mom and I were talking, for reasons that escape me now, about pumpernickel bread. She asked where the word “pumpernickel” comes from, so I did some research.
True pumpernickel, which is made from whole rye flour and rye berries with a sourdough starter, and is traditionally baked for a long time in a slow oven to produce its dark color, is from the Westphalia region of Germany.
The name comes from Pumpen, the High German slang word for “fart.” And Nickel was short for Nicholas, a vernacular name for the devil (that’s where we get “Old Nick” as a synonym for Satan). So pumpernickel literally means “the devil’s fart,” and probably refers to the flatulence that many people experience after eating it.
Mom chuckled, and immediately asked for a cream cheese, olive, and devil’s fart sandwich. At least she still has a sense of humor.
This prompted me to wonder how “Nick” came to refer to Satan. It’s been variously ascribed to the Dutch word nikker, the hangman, and by extension to the Devil as final executioner; from the German nix (not nichts) or Icelandic nykr, a goblin or spirit that draws its victims into its underwater home; or, rather fancifully, to an alteration of “an ick,” that is, a touch of a Druid’s wand, which according to one etymology “gave rise to the phrase, ‘Old Nick will carry you away should you dare to break the sacred circle.'” Can’t say I’ve ever heard the phrase, though.
Many etymologies make a connection between “Old Nick” and “Old Scratch.” In the last century it was widely used in the eastern United States, especially in New England, as is evident from the Devil’s name for himself in the Stephen Vincent Benét short story, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Now the term has been regionalized to the South. Old Scratch is attested in the Oxford English Dictionary from the 18th century onward in Great Britain as a colloquialism: “He’d have pitched me to Old Scratch” (Anthony Trollope, 1858). The source of the name is probably the Middle English word scrat, a hermaphroditic goblin (!), which in turn comes from Old Norse word skratte, meaning a wizard, goblin, monster, or devil.
Odd that monsters, spirits, and wizards get all mixed up together. Or that people have thought enough about goblins to visualize their sexual organs.
Sexual organs! Now, there are some interesting etymologies for you. . . !