Words, Words, Words (Again) (5)

Back to it: one of my favorite subjects: English words.

Today I’ll start with benign. According to Oxford Languages, the word means gentle and kindly, not harmful. Merriam-Webster says that it comes from Latin “benignus,” which was formed from “bene,” meaning “well,” and “gignere,” “to beget.” “Gignere” is also the root of such English words as genius and germ.

Next:  notwithstanding. It simply means in spite of. It’s from Middle English “notwithstonding,” from “not” and “withstonding,” present participle of withstonden to withstand, which, in turn, means stand up against or resist.

That brings us to muckraker, meaning one who searches out and exposes misconduct or publicizes scandal about famous people. It comes from the verb, “muckrake,” which means to rake excrement. “Muck,” by itself, most often means farmyard manure.

Now: hotspur, a rash, hotheaded, impetuous man. The word is a combination of “hot,” meaning overly warm, and “spur,” a device with a small spike or a spiked wheel that is worn on a rider’s heel and used for urging a horse forward. Hotspur has quite a history. It was the nickname of Sir Henry Percy (1364–1403), known as Harry Hotspur, eldest son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland. It also refers to Sir Henry Percy as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.

That brings us to Yankee. The word refers to someone living in the northeast U.S., a northerner in the U.S., or simply an American. The word’s origin is unknown. One theory is that is derived from the Dutch “Janke,” a diminutive of Jan meaning “John.” Or perhaps it originated when a British general named James Wolfe used it first in 1758 when he was commanding some New England soldiers. Or maybe the word comes from the Cherokee word “eankke,” which means coward. It remains a mystery.

Whew. Enough linguistic oddity for one day. More next time.

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