Viva etymology

Recently I came across the word myriad in a news story, and it was one of the myriad times the word gets misused.

It said something to the tune of: “People watch the myriad of floats pass by.” What the parade-goers were watching, of course, was “the myriad floats pass by.”

As you know, that is because myriad comes from a Greek expression meaning 10,000, which was said to be the greatest number in the Greek language expressed by one word. Just as we would not say we watched “10,000 of floats” pass by, we don’t say “a myriad of.”

Because 10,000 was a lot to lay on the average Greek, the word also came to represent something infinite or countless, such as the stars in the sky. So, although it is technically correct to reserve myriad for 10,000, we also can use it for numbers too big to count.

I love etymology – the study of the origin of words and how their meanings have changed over the years. In an oddity of etymology (that will be the name of my first book, An Od­dity of Etymology), both inch and ounce are derived from the same word. Can you guess why?

That’s right, the Latin “uncia” meant one-twelfth, so it was useful when referring to an inch (one-twelfth of a foot) and to an ounce (one-twelfth of a pound).

What’s that you say? There are 16 ounces in a pound, not 12? OK, you’ve got me. But in the old days, they used the Troy pound, not the avoirdupois pound we have today, which indeed does have 16 ounces.

And so, the word moved through different groups of Euro­peans and split into two words – ounce and inch – and others to boot (lynx, for instance). Such are the ways of etymology.

As much as I love words, I detest politics. It is one of the dirtiest words in the language. (A reader became enraged recently because I asked him to stop sending me political invectives, which I don’t read, regardless of their slant.)

Because it’s no secret where the names of our political parties came from (De­mocratic, Republican, independent, green are self-explanatory), let’s go back to our Colonial days and before, when there were other actors in the political infighting.

There was a Scottish expression whiggham, meaning “git up!” Scots who drove their horse-drawn wagons in a certain area gave rise to a handy word, I discovered. Those wagon drivers were whiggamores (“to urge forward” plus “mare”). The word entered politics and was shortened to Whigs, the party that wanted to limit royal authority and increase parliamentary power. The Whigs became what is now Britain’s Liberal Party.

The Whigs opposed the Tories, who supported the king, state and church. Tory was the name given to American Colonists who fought independence and stayed loyal to George III of England.

It stemmed from an Irish word meaning “a pursued person or outlaw.” Tory means “conservative.”

Viva etymology!

Reach Glynn Moore at glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com.

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