Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
As you gather with family and friends for what we hope is a warm and loving Thanksgiving celebration, you will likely some of these common words that you might not know have other uncommon meanings. As you fill your belly with turkey and cranberries, stuff your mind with these lexical tidbits:
It’s sadly inescapable that any talk about a Thanksgiving meal leads to discussions about diet and dieting. You’ve probably heard of the Diet of Worms, and while we hope this doesn’t describe your Thanksgiving meal, it does point us to a different type of diet, one that might describe your gathering of family and friends … if viewed from a particular angle.
This type of diet is a formal meeting of councilors, princes, or estates in order to deliberate on particular issues. There were a number of diets at Worms (a city in western Germany), but the most well known occurred in 1521. It was called by Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and it was at this diet that Martin Luther was summoned to answer charges of heresy and to recant his 95 theses, which set off the Protestant Reformation.
Both types of diet can be traced back to the Greek diaita “regimen, way of life,” which became the Latin diaeta. On the one hand, diaeta narrowed from “a prescribed way of life” to, by the 14th century in England, “a customary way of eating.” On the other hand, diaeta was associated with the Latin dies “day,” and we find forms of the word — in both Medieval Latin and English — that mean “a day’s journey,” “a day’s work,” and “a day set aside for a meeting.” From here, the word came to refer to the meetings themselves.
If you have heads of household from your extended family coming together to resolve family conflicts this Thanksgiving, you might justifiably refer to the gathering as a diet.
If you’re fond of turkey gravy, you should know that the best turkey gravy relies on fond. Although the word fond is most often used to mean “desirous” or “affectionate,” the pieces of turkey meat and fat left over in the roasting pan — the stuff you scrape up to make gravy — are also called fond.
Like many culinary terms, this type of fond came to English through Old French, from funt or font, which traces to the Latin fundus “bottom, base.”
Thanksgiving falls during the heart of football season, so there’s a lot of punting going on at this time of year. But a punt can be more than just a drop kick.
If you uncorked a nice bottle of wine to drink with your Thanksgiving feast, you might have noticed the indentation on the bottom of the bottle. That, too, is called a punt, and it goes back to the days when glassblowers created wine bottles: They would push the bottom in like that to make sure that the bottle would stand upright and to avoid any sharp glass edges. Except with bottles of sparkling wine, here the punt helps maintain an even pressure inside, the punts on today’s machine-generated wine bottles are simply a tradition and don’t serve a meaningful purpose.
And you might also know of a third type of punt: a type of long, square-cornered, flat-bottomed boat that’s usually propelled with a pole instead of oars or a motor.
Perhaps surprisingly, none of these three punts are etymologically related. The kicking type of punt appeared in the mid-19th century as a rugby term, and its origin isn’t clear, though it might be related to bunt. The name of the indentation on the bottom of a wine bottle probably comes from the glassblowing tool called a punty, which is a small metal rod that blowers attach to the bottom of a piece of blown glass so they can do finishing work at the top. The last punt traces back to the Latin ponto, a flat-bottomed ferry boat whose name is also the source of the word pontoon.
Happy Thanksgiving from The Saturday Evening Post!
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