The word addict is back. Not long ago I wrote a blog about my favourite stories behind words. You’d think that would have quelled my need to wax lyrical about etymology (the study of words — not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects).
So without further ado, here are five more terms concealing an odd tale or two.
We all dream of having some product named after ourselves. In my ideal world, some years from now, millions of happy consumers will be fed a beer by their own artificially intelligent pillow. But enough about the Seifert Booze and Snooze. Some people, it seems, prefer to lend their name to death and destruction.
Enter General Henry Shrapnel, who while serving in the Peninsular War (a conflict between Napoleon’s empire and a trio of Spain, Britain and Portugal) took explosions up a notch. He invented a hollow cannon ball stuffed with shot that would detonate in mid-air, shredding its surroundings with, you guessed it, shrapnel.
I wish we could say “Let’s move on to something more positive”, but instead we’re taking a swift left turn into Hell itself. General Shrapnel’s invention must have filled battles with pandemonium. But did you know that Pandemonium is an actual place?
Well, a fictional one anyway, devised by John Milton in his 1667 masterpiece Paradise Lost. Pandemonium here is no less than “the high capital of Satan and all his peers,” occupying prime real estate in Hell. I can only imagine what the Airbnb reviews are like.
The word itself breaks down quite nicely (as, I imagine, do the guests of the palace). Mash together “Pan” (from the Greek for “all”) and “daemonium” (Latin for “evil spirit”) and hey presto, you’ve got chaos.
We’re off to ancient China! I was recently tickled to find out that the Chinese word for “contradiction” is made up of the characters for “spear” and “shield”.
Why? The story goes that a merchant wanted to sell his weaponry: a spear so sharp “no shield could resist it”, and a shield so hard “no spear could pierce it”. A contradiction indeed, but it sounds like a pretty handy set should General Shrapnel be lurking around.
If Pandemonium sounds like a place unlikely to make your bucket list, then maelstrom would be right under it.
Today we use the word to allude to a situation of violent turmoil (“My kid’s birthday party ended in a food fight. Cake flying like shrapnel, and I got caught in the maelstrom!”). But again, a maelstrom is a literal place. Just off the north-west coast of Norway lies a furious current known for centuries for its deadly whirpools — the Lofoten Maelstrom. Its name comes from the Dutch “malen” (meaning “to grind”) and “stroom’”(“stream”).
If this depressing list is filling you with an urge to throw yourself out the nearest window, then allow me to at least give that act its proper name.
Defenestration comes from the Latin “fenestra” (for “window”), and was born on 23 May, 1618, after an infamous event known as the Defenestration of Prague. It occurred when two Catholic deputies and a secretary were pushed out of a castle window after a religious argument.
The story goes that the men survived (albeit by landing on a dung heap), and the incident kicked off the Thirty Years’ War, one of the most destructive wars in European history.
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