In a Word: Where Your Ballot Comes From

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.

Voting is heavily on the minds of Americans these days. The general message is the same from all sides: Get out and cast your ballot! But have you ever wondered why it’s called a ballot?

Centuries ago, when a secret vote needed to be taken, Italian organizations wouldn’t use what we think of today as paper ballots. Instead, using a system popularized in Venice, they would vote using small colored balls. Ball in Italian is palla, but as these voting-globes were particularly tiny, the diminutive form pallotte was employed to describe these balls.

By the 1540s, this form of vote-casting had entered English politics, and it brought the word ballot with it, still referring to a small ball used in voting. By 1776 — a particularly noteworthy year in the history of voting — we English speakers had largely set aside ballot’s spherical origins while keeping its link to vote-casting; the paper ballot had been born.

Seeing that ballot derives from an Italian word, you might surmise that it’s ultimately Latin in origin, but that’s not the case here. Palla was borrowed into Italian long ago from a Germanic source, tracing at least to the Old Norse bollr. Latin had other names for such spheres, like globus (the source of our globe), pila (whence pill), and the word from which we derive sphere itself — sphaera, which is an earlier borrowing of the Greek sphaira.

Speaking of ancient Greeks, they voted in a way similar to the Venetians, but they didn’t have any specially made balls for the purpose. Instead, they voted with pebbles. In Greek, the word for “pebbles” is psephos, which is why, today, the study of voting and elections is called psephology.

Plenty of amateur psephologists will be speaking out in the coming months, but you should always remember that their theories and opinions are just that. The only things that decide the outcome of an election are those ballots.


Featured image: maroke / Shutterstock

In a Word: Time to Relax

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.

This last week of the year is a time when many of us, having overworked ourselves throughout the rest of the year, try to cram in our last allotted vacation days at work before we lose them. That time off lets us relax and enjoy the company of friends and family.

With Christmas over, it’s theoretically easier for millions of people to relax, but with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa still in full swing, New Year’s Eve parties to plan, other remaining obligations with families on the books — and especially if you’re one of the skeleton crew keeping the business afloat while everyone else is away — we are perhaps not getting as much R&R as advertised.

So take a moment right now to pause. Take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and allow your mind and your muscles to lose their tension. Keep reading, and together we’ll do a little relaxing.

One of the joys of being a word lover is looking more deliberately at words we use every day and seeing patterns that we might normally miss. Take relax, for example. Re- + lax; does it really mean “to lax again”? Not precisely, but that’s not far from the truth: The word traces back, through Old French, to the Latin relaxare “loosen, stretch, or widen again,” from that re- prefix and laxare “loosen.”

Relax found its way into English in the late 14th or early 15th century, but in the beginning it existed only in the transitive sense — that is, it required a direct object. For centuries, you could “relax your grip” or “relax a knot,” for instance, but it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the intransitive sense caught on, and you could take time off work to just relax.

Which is what I hope you get to spend some time doing over the next week. There’s a lot of tension in the world, and it is good for our minds, our health, and our souls to find a few minutes every day to relax.

Need more relaxation? From our 5-Minute Fitness series, here are a breathing technique to help de-stress, a simple stretch to help soothe your neck, and a simple exercise to help stretch away stress.

Featured image: Shutterstock

No Problem with “No Problem”

Everything was satisfactory. Your steak was well done — just the way you ordered it — and the millennial waiter kept your diet soda sans ice constantly filled. Then it happened. It happened so quickly that you were blindsided by his lapse of humanity as your server answered your expression of gratitude not with a proper “you’re welcome,” but with that odious phrase:

“No problem!”

What’s his problem? you’re thinking. This egregious transgression seems an atrocity, a glaring indication of a societal dissolution of norms and values.

Or maybe you’re overreacting.

Before asking to speak to the manager — who is probably another millennial — take a moment to reflect on whether it matters if an underpaid service worker uses the same lexicon you do.

The dispute over how to properly accept gratitude seems to be, as with many linguistic disagreements, a proxy war for generational superiority.

Who is acting entitled now?

“You’re welcome,” “no problem,” “no worries,” and “don’t mention it” are different facets of the same stone. The last seems to be the most acceptable among welcomers despite its adjacency to saying “shut up.”

These phrases, short, everyday expressions that actually convey next to nothing of value, are called phatic communications. The call-and-response sector of conversation, like a daily game of Marco Polo, maintains social solidarity and politeness, so a subversion of the typical “thank you” and “you’re welcome” interaction could seem jarring and perhaps rude. But when you consider that they’re mostly meaningless courtesies, the actual words themselves seem far less important than the intent behind them. If one kid in the pool cries out “Rubio!” instead of the typical response, gameplay can still proceed.

What does “you’re welcome” even mean? The phrase has been used to answer gratitude at least since Shakespearean times, but no one can be sure of why. It’s a nicety, probably meant to indicate one’s pleasure in the opportunity to help someone else. But has it ever been accurate? When a teenager at Chick-fil-A hands over your waffle fries and says “it’s my pleasure,” aren’t you really just taking part in some guise that she is delighted to be serving you fried food and milkshakes instead of vaping with her friends and performing stunts for YouTube? At least when she says “no problem,” you know she’s being honest.

As far as “thank you” responses are concerned, “you’re welcome” is an oddity, globally speaking. French and Spanish both opt for “it’s nothing” (de rien and de nada), and Germans use bitte, which also means “please,” “here you go,” and “oh no, it’s the picky American again.” In Ethiopia’s Amharic tongue, a service provider would say menem aydelem, which means — you guessed it — “no problem.” They’ve been saying it since at least the 13th century.

For cranky baby boomers demanding recourse for the subliminal suggestion that they could possibly be the cause of a problem, my best advice is this: Get over it. While our word choice usually carries importance, this is an instance in which it simply doesn’t. The dispute over how to properly accept gratitude seems to be, as with many linguistic disagreements, a proxy war for generational superiority, and those rarely end in victory for the status quo.

*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.” —Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

In a Word: Putting the ‘Horse’ in ‘Hippopotamus’

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.

You might think that someone suffering from hippophobia has a debilitating fear of hippopotamuses. But that isn’t the case. The hippo- part hippophobia comes from Greek word hippos “horse” — hippophobia is a fear of horses.

The name for the third largest land animal on the planet comes from the Greek hippos potamios, meaning “river horse,” borrowed into Latin and eventually becoming, by the mid-16th century, hippopotamus. It’s a good descriptive name: It’s got four legs, like a horse, and it spends up to 16 hours a day in the water to keep its hide from drying out.

Don’t even dream of strapping a saddle on one of these big beasts and riding off into the African sunset, though; genetically, hippos are more closely related to pigs and whales than to horses, and according to the National Wildlife Federation, they kill about 3,000 people a year. Best to admire them from a distance.

That leaves us with one question: If hippophobia is a fear of horses, what word describes a debilitating fear of hippopotamuses? If the need ever arose to diagnose such a condition, hippopotamophobia is the likeliest candidate.

About the plural: Hippopotamus didn’t enter English directly from the Greek, but was first borrowed into Latin; therefore, the Latin plural form hippopotami is acceptable. But because hippopotamus is an English word, standard English pluralization rules can be applied to it as well, so hippopotamuses is also an acceptable — and often preferred — plural.

In a Word: The Difference between a Swashbuckler and a Buccaneer

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.

We’re less than a week away from September 19 and one of the best holidays of the year: International Talk Like a Pirate Day! But before you start revving up your “ARRR”s or shivering your timbers, learn about the history of two words often associated with the high-seas adventures of pirates: swashbuckler and buccaneer.

Swashbuckler is a word that came together during the 16th century, and it’s a fairly simple combination of two pre-existing words: A buckler was a small shield one could hold by a handle. Swash was a verb meaning “to strike loudly or violently.” It later came to describe the sound of water splashing against a solid surface.

An overconfident duelist of the time might hit (swash) his shield (buckler) with his sword to goad his challenger on — the 17th-century version of “Come at me, bro.” So, naturally, one who showed such swagger and bravado came to be called … a buckler-swasher!

Well, no. Although we form words like that in English all the time (think dishwasher, copyeditor, and shoemaker), for some reason — possibly the influence of the French language — a person who swashed his bucklers was called a swashbuckler. These days, the word is more indicative of a person’s audacity and bluster than their skill with a sword and shield.

Though they contain similar sounds, buckler doesn’t figure into that other word for pirates, buccaneer. In the Spanish West Indies during the 17th century, French hunters and settlers learned how to smoke and cure meat from the natives using a wooden frame they called a boucan; they became boucaniers. When they were driven from their trade by Spanish authorities, some of them became pirates, and they took the name with them.

In a Word: When Deadlines Were Dire

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.

We’ve all missed deadlines before. It can be embarrassing, it can be costly, and it can even get you fired. But none of those results even comes close to what might befall someone who crossed the original deadline.

Deadline traces back to prisoner-of-war camps in the South during the American Civil War — perhaps originally to the horrific prisoner camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Supplies were limited by the war, and barbed wire hadn’t even been invented yet, so there was only so much prison administrators could do to prevent POWs from escaping. They put up walls and fences, but to make it harder for soldiers to slip out, they also established a line on the ground about 20 feet in. Any prisoner who crossed that line was subject to being shot by the Confederate guards.

It was a literal deadline: You cross it, you die.

Around the turn of the century, as printing technology was expanding, deadline returned. Etymologists aren’t positive whether or not the Civil War deadline influenced the printing deadline, which was an imaginary line near the edge of a paper beyond which the printing press could not print anything. Regardless, it wasn’t long before that line on a physical page beyond which work cannot go took a metaphorical turn and became a line in time beyond which work cannot go.

Today’s deadlines are not so dire as they once were. As the novelist Douglas Adams famously wrote, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”