Etymology Assignment

For History of English we had to do an Etymology Assignment. It was kind of interesting so I thought I would post what I wrote. It’s kind of really long so I’m going to put it behind a break.


n. A self-seeking, servile flatter; fawning parasite. (

n. A servile self-seeker who attempts to win favor by flattering influential people. (American Heritage Dictionary)

n. A person who tries to please someone in order to gain a personal advantage. (Wordnet)

In 1537 the word in Latin was Sycophanta, meaning an informer, talebarer or slanderer. This word was directly from the Greek compound of sykon and phanein, sykophantes, meaning “showing the fig.” Showing the fig was an indecent gesture much like “flipping the bird” or presenting one’s middle finger is today. Showing the fig entailed placing ones thumb in between two fingers, while the gesture of giving the fig entailed placing one’s thumb in between the teeth, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,

“Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”

“No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.”

A split fig was said to resemble a vulva and was thus an obscene reference, or in those times, “fighting words (gestures)”. The meaning had undergone some change by 1575 in England where it had come to mean “a mean, servile flatterer.”

Semantic Changes

(a) Sykon + phanein compounds the words ‘fig’ and ‘to show’ from Greek into the Latin Sycophanta, meaning ‘fig shower.’

(b) Metonymy occurred concerning the phrase sycophant where ‘showing the fig’ began to be seen as a vulgar reference to the female anatomy.

(c) The word underwent subreption when its meaning changed from ‘a slanderer’ to ‘a servile flatterer.’

Phonetic Changes

(a) Sykon to Syko (Elision), and Phanein to Phanta (Apocope [loss of ‘ein’] and Paragoge [addition of ‘ta’])

(b) Change from Sycophanta to Sycophant shows Apocope in the removal of the final ‘a’.



1. A stemwinding watch.

2. Older Slang.

a. something remarkable of its kind.

b. a rousing speech, esp. a stirring political address.

c. a stirring orator.


n. A watch that is wound by turning a knob at the stem. (Wordnet)

A stemwinder was a watch that was wound by a stem. When this device was invented (circa 1865-1870) it was a convenient technological advance. Whereas before the stemwinder one had to wind a watch with a special key designed for each specific watch, with its inception the mechanism with which one wound the watch was built into the device itself. The advance was so notable that ‘stemwinder’ became a general term for any sort of new and impressive device.

Semantic Changes

(a) Compounding of words ‘stem’ and ‘winder’ to mean a specific type of watch.

(b) Extension occured whereas the meaning shifted from just a watch to any new and impressive.

(c) Extension occured to also refer to someone who was pursuasive or impressive.

(d) Further extension to include a speech that was impressive or sensational.

Phonetic Changes

Has remained largely the same.



1. Carefree and joyous.

2. Swaggering; boisterous.


v. (to rollick) To behave or move in a carefree, frolicsome manner; romp. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Probably a mixture of the words ‘to roll’ and ‘to frolic’. “Rollicking” appears in print in 1811 in E. Matthews’ Mem. C. Matthews referring to jovial, or boisterously sportive people. The word’s use moved around some to describe many things exuberantly gay or jovial, and clearly shown by 1883 to also mean a joyous escapade. It appears in 1942 in a work of Berrey & Van den Bark in the form of ‘rollicky’ as synonomous with Hilarious.

Semantic Changes

(a) Fusion of words ‘roll’ and ‘frolic’ to connote a rolling frolic.

(b) The use extended from describing only people to also describing actions.

(c) Extension to also mean a sportive frolic or escapade.

(d) The meaning is again extended to include ‘hilarity’ in the form of ‘rollicky’

Phonetic Changes

(a) Form change fusing words ‘roll’ and ‘frolic’ to rollick/rollicking.

(b) Occasionally spelled ‘rollocking’ possibly showing a dialectual vowel shift (/i/ to /o/) or reflecting a dialectual vowel difference seen in other similar words.


n. a residential area outside of a city and beyond suburbia. (Wordnet).

Exurbia first appears in 1955 describing the area beyond the suburbs of New York City. It was formed by attaching the prefix ‘ex-‘ (outside, beyond, no longer) to the last two syllables of ‘suburbia’ forming ‘exurbia’. The word suburb/suburbia itself dates back in writing to 1380, where it appeared in the form of ‘subarbis’. In 1386 Chaucer used the word ‘suburbes’ with it’s modern meaning. ‘Suburbes’ itself visibly resembles the Latin ‘sub’ (under, up to, close to) and ‘urbes’ (city).

Semantic Changes

(a) Productive combination of a pre-existing prefix, ‘ex-‘ and a pre-existing bound root ‘urb/urbia’ to describe a new phenomenon.

Phonetic Changes

(a) The change from ‘suburbes’ to ‘suburb’, ‘suburban’, and ‘suburbia’ shows Apocope [removal of ‘es’] and Paragoge [addition of ‘-an’ or ‘-ia’].

(b) Form change to combine the root ‘urbia’ or other form with the prefix ‘ex-‘.



1. An institution for higher learning with teaching and research facilities constituting a graduate school and professional schools that award master’s degrees and doctorates and an undergraduate division that awards bachelor’s degrees.

2. The buildings and grounds of such an institution.

3. The body of students and faculty of such an institution.

(American Heritage Dictionary).

Originates from the Latin word ‘universus’ meaning ‘whole, entire’. This meaning was extended to include ‘the whole, aggregate’. From this point the meaning again extended to a ‘corporation, society’ and eventually to ‘institution of higher learning’ also ‘the people of a university’. The original entire phrase that matches the modern meaning of ‘university’ was ‘universitas magistrorum et scholarium’ which means ‘community of masters and scholars’. The phrase was shortened for common use to simply ‘universitas’. From ‘universitas’ it changed to ‘universeté’ and eventually to ‘university’.

Semantic Changes

(a) The move from meaning ‘whole, entire’ to ‘the whole, aggregate’ exhibits extension.

(b) The meaning extended further to include ‘corporation, society’

(c) The meaning of ‘corporation, society’ was used in a phrase describing an institution of learning, then the phrase was shortened to just ‘universitas’. This was effectively subreption.

Phonetic Changes

(a) The change from ‘universus’ to ‘universitas’ exhibits paragoge.

(b) Paragoge again explains the change from ‘universitas’ to ‘universeté’.

(c) A vowel shift then occured changing the /é/ to the /i/ sound (spelled with ‘y’), from ‘universeté’ to ‘university’.




a. The occupation, work, or trade in which a person is engaged: the wholesale food business.

b. A specific occupation or pursuit: the best designer in the business.

2. Commercial, industrial, or professional dealings: new systems now being used in business.

3. A commercial enterprise or establishment: bought his uncle’s business.

4. Volume or amount of commercial trade: Business had fallen off.

5. Commercial dealings; patronage: took her business to a trustworthy salesperson.


a. One’s rightful or proper concern or interest: “The business of America is business” (Calvin Coolidge).

b. Something involving one personally: It’s none of my business.

7. Serious work or endeavor: got right down to business.

8. An affair or matter: “We will proceed no further in this business” (Shakespeare).

9. An incidental action performed by an actor on the stage to fill a pause between lines or to provide interesting detail.

10. Informal. Verbal abuse; scolding: gave me the business for being late.

11. Obsolete. The condition of being busy.

(American Heritage Dictionary)

Business originally comes from the Northumbrian Old English word ‘bisignisse’ meaning ‘care, anxiety’ which was a form of the word bisig, meaning ‘careful, anxious, busy, occupied’. From the 1300s to the 1400s many semantic extensions of ‘bisig’, which was at this point spelled ‘bisi’ or ‘bisy’, had come into use. These included ‘work, occupation, profession’, ‘activity, briskness’, ‘mischevious or impertinant activity, officiousness’, ‘eagerness, earnestness, importunity’, ‘care, attention, observance’, ‘trouble, difficulty, ado’, ‘a company of flies, or a company of ferrets’, all of which save the first have since suffered obsolescence. Many other extensions of the word developed later including ‘diligent labor, exertion, pains’, ‘a task undertaken, official duty, function’, ‘action which occupies time, demands attention and labor’, ‘a serious employment as distinguished from a pastime’, ‘a particular matter, a piece of work, a job’, ‘a matter that concerns or relates to a particular person or thing’, ‘subject of consideration or discussion, subject of a book’, ‘an affair, concern, matter’, ‘dealings, intercourse’, ‘[in theatre] Action as distinguished from dialogue’, ‘commercial transactions or engagements’, in the form of ‘a man of business’, and as a component in numerous compound words. Many of these uses are still common today. ‘Business’ has been a very busy word, extending itself frequently over the years.

Semantic Changes

(a) From it’s original meaning ‘careful, anxious, occupied’ ‘bisig’ extended many times, often only from it’s form including ‘-ness’.

(b) The original meaning of ‘busy’ underwent subreption, to most commonly mean ‘occupied’.

(c) Many of the new meanings suffered obsolescence.

Phonetic Changes

(a) The change from ‘bisig’ to ‘bisi’ or ‘bisy’ exhibits elision of the final ‘g’.

(b) From the ‘-ness’ form ‘bisiness’ to a vowel shift (/i/ to /u/)at some point to ‘business’ and eventually the reverse (/u/ to /i/) occured in the pronunciation but not in the spelling.

(c) Haplology occured changing ‘business’ to ‘busness’ losing the middle syllable.

(d) A vowel shift occured from the pronunciation ‘bisness’ to ‘bisnis’ /e/ to /i/.

(e) Lenition occured adding more voice to the first s, making ‘bisnis’ more like ‘biznis’.

Works Cited

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 02 Oct. 2006. <> Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006. 02 Oct. 2006. <>

Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, 2001. 02 Oct. 2006. <>

The Oxford English Dictionary. Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia, 2006. 03 Oct. 2006. <>

Robertson’s Words for a Modern Age: A Dictionary of Latin and Greek Words used in Modern English Vocabulary. Senior Scribe Publications, 2006. 02 Oct. 2006. <>

WordNet® 2.0. Princeton University. 02 Oct. 2006. <>

World Wide Words. Michael Quinion, 2006. 02 Oct. 2006. <>


About evilestmark

Writer, Yogi, English, and Japanese teacher living in rural Japan.
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