Abracadabra

The magic word with a magical/medical past.

The exact origin of abracadabra is unknown but what is known is, before its modern usage by stage magicians, it was used as a real magical incantation. The earliest documented instance is the 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus. As physician to the the Roman emperor Caracalla, Sammonicus prescribed wearing an amulet with the word abracadabra written on it to cure malaria.

The 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus showing abracadabra written in triangular form.

Abracadabra’s use in healing magic may have to do with its possible etymologies. One possibility is that it comes from the Hebrew “ebrah k’dabri” or “I will create as I speak”. Or it may have come from “Abraxas” the mystical word/god from the Gnostic belief system. One language it’s not from is Aramaic (which the internet likes to say it is). Often quoted as coming from “Abra Kadabra” meaning “May the thing be destroyed”, this false Aramaic etymology became a popular internet “factoid” because J.K. Rowling used it as the basis for her “Avada Kedavra” spell in the Harry Potter series (a spell that does not cure malaria … or anything else).

Abracadabra became a popular protective magical word to cure a variety of ills. One application was to write abracadabra out 11 times but each time removing the new last letter, forming a triangle pointing down. This could be written on parchment and worn around the neck, or carved into a pendant of some kind, but the idea was the same – you used the word to summon protective spirits. As you worked your way down, abracadabra would disappear and hopefully so would your illness.

In a metal pendant or written on parchment, abracadabra in triangular form was said to have protective / healing powers.

From Real Magic to Stage “Magic”

Over the millennia, as our scientific knowledge grew, we learned more about medicine and our belief in magic diminished. In general we no longer rely on magic to cure/protect us from the unknown. Our scientific understanding of the world leaves little room for magic; in a similar way to how we no longer have sea monsters on our maps. Magic went from being a highly-regarded area of study, to fun entertaining tricks illusions with rabbits in hats, decks of cards, sleight of hand, magic wands, etc. Similarly, abracadabra went from being a real magic word to being a performative word for stage magicians.

Added info: In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe mentions that some citizens of London, so desperate for relief from the plague in 1665, took to writing abracadabra in the triangle design on the doors of their homes. The Victorians took to the triangular abracadabra pendant as Western esotericism became popular. Today you can still find abracadabra pendants, should you want a little extra magical protection from the viruses of today.

Thugs

The term “thug” comes from India and centuries of murderous highway thieves.

The word “thug”, used in the common parlance to describe “a violent or brutish criminal or bully”, comes from the medieval highway men of India. Thugs were organized professional criminals. Posing as innocent travelers, thugs would gain the confidence of wealthy people traveling the same roads, sometimes traveling with them for a few days. Then, when the time was right, the thugs would strangle their victims, rob them, and dispose of their bodies. While thugs used a variety of methods for murder, their preferred method of strangulation may have been from a loophole in 16th century Mughal law which specified that a murderer would only be sentenced to death if he/she had shed blood.

Thugs about to strangle an unsuspecting victim.

Colonial Thug Life

Over the centuries thugs murdered & robbed tens of thousands of people. They gained international infamy with the British colonization of India. As the British encountered the thugs, stories of these scandalous criminals made it back home to England. The thug problem was even used in part to justify the colonization of India as the British would be “helping to save the natives from themselves”.

In the early 19th century the British began to break-up, prosecute, and eradicate the thugs. The Thuggee and Dacoity Department was formed in 1830 as a division of the East India Company to address the thug problem – hunting down thousands of thugs. By the late 19th century thugs had largely disappeared from daily life.

The “Cult of Kali”

In the west, thugs were often portrayed as members of a cult to the goddess Kali, murdering and robbing in her honor. It was even said that strangulation in particular was part of a divine mandate. In recent years however there has been increasing doubt as to the legitimacy of these religious claims. Modern thinking is that it’s unlikely these criminals were members of some wide-spread murderous death cult and more likely that the British were using these ideas to further their own agenda.

In portraying what were in actuality informal networks of criminals as a horrifying death cult the British could denigrate, delegitimize, and criminalize indigenous peoples. Over time “thug” became a term used to dismissively denigrate people of all kinds, but especially people of color. By the 1990s, in a reclaiming of the word, “thug” became a fixture of hip-hop especially through Tupac Shakur (who had “thug life” tattooed across his stomach). Today the word “thug” appears in either the lyrics or the artist name, of over 4,800 songs.

Added info: This association with Kali was the inspiration for the thuggee cult members in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Also, Kali is often portrayed with her tongue out, which served as inspiration for the Rolling Stones logo. Further, in Sympathy For The Devil, the lyric “And I laid traps for the troubadors / Who get killed before they reach Bombay” is believed to be a reference to thugs murdering Tibetan musicians on the road to Bombay.

Indigo & Isaac Newton

Indigo was included in the color spectrum by Isaac Newton because he wanted the spectrum to have seven colors instead of six.

Isaac Newton’s pioneering experiments with light & prisms explained how white light is actually the combination of several wavelengths (colors) of light. He demonstrated this using a prism to break apart white light into its composite colors and then used a second prism to recombine those colors back into white light. When white light is broken apart the “spectrum” (a word Newton introduced to the field of optics meaning a “continuum of color”) has many colors. Exactly how many colors is open to cultural interpretation.

Isaac Newton refracting white light through a prism, demonstrating that white light is comprised of more than one wavelength of color.

Any Color You Like

Most human eyes are essentially the same which means that most of us are physically capable of seeing & differentiating all of the same colors. Where we differ is how we think about color. Your culture & language influences how you categorize colors.

The importance of, and names for, different colors varies from culture to culture. For example, the medieval English didn’t have a name for the color orange until the 16th century, so before then things that were orange were just called red (like “redheads” and the robin “redbreast”). It’s not that they couldn’t see orange, they just didn’t have a name for it because having two distinct names for red and orange wasn’t important until then. Russian, Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew all have two different words for idea of blue: one for darker blue and the other for lighter blue.

Hungarian has two different words for red depending on what you’re describing. “Piros” is used for red inanimate objects or red cheerful things, while “vörös” is used for red animate things or red serious things. Irish Gaelic has two words for the idea of green depending on where it’s seen. “Glas” is used for the green of plants while “uaithne” is used for the green of artificial dyes. The hue of a plant and a sweater could be exactly the same, but in Irish Gaelic different words will be used for the idea of green. In a nutshell: the names, categorization, and importance of various colors is entirely influenced by which culture we are a part of.

This cultural influence also applies to the spectrum of color and rainbows. Illustrations of rainbows contain discreet, countable, bands of colors. In nature however they’re continuous gradations of wavelengths/colors. Assigning a fixed number of colors to a rainbow depends on your cultural interpretation. In Islam, rainbows traditionally only have 4 colors corresponding to the four elements of water, earth, fire and air. Western culture should probably only have six colors, but we have seven because of Isaac Newton’s interest in mysticism.

Isaac Newton included seven colors in his spectrum because he felt the number seven was mystical & important. To do this he selected one tertiary color, indigo, to be included in his list of colors.

The Sacred Seven

As scientifically minded as Newton was, he also held occult/mystical beliefs. He believed in sacred geometry and the ideas of Pythagoras that there was an importance to the number seven. At first, after refracting white light, Newton recorded observing five colors (red, yellow, green, blue, violet). Then he recorded seeing six (he added orange). But to Newton six wasn’t as satisfying as seven. There are seven notes in the western major scale, seven days in a week, seven known “planets” in the sky (in Newton’s time), but only six colors in the spectrum of light? This wouldn’t do, so he added indigo.

The first six colors he observed are a logical western division of the spectrum:
• three primary colors (red, yellow, blue)
• three secondary colors (orange, green, violet)

Indigo is a blend of blue + violet and as such is the only tertiary color he included. It’s not that indigo isn’t part of the spectrum (it’s definitely there), but rather the problem is that it’s the only tertiary color listed because Newton shoehorned it in. Why indigo? Why not vermillion or cerulean? Indigo’s inclusion was an arbitrary choice driven by Newton’s desire to have seven colors instead of six so he picked one tertiary color but ignored the five others. Cultural influences pushed him to find seven colors instead of six (or eight, or twelve, or any other number). Centuries later we still divide the spectrum into seven colors because of Newton.

Animal Names vs Meat Names

In English we have different names for animals vs those same animals as food because of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE.

From the 5th century until the 11th century England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were descendant of Germanic tribes which is why English is related to German. In looking along the language family tree we can see that English is actually related to a host of Germanic languages. The early English language of the Anglo-Saxons took a turn however in 1066 CE when the Normans invaded and conquered the country.

The Normans were a French speaking people from Normandy, the northwestern area of France named for them. After crossing the channel and conquering England, they became the ruling class. This led to a tri-lingual system where:

  • Latin was the language of the Church
  • Anglo-Saxon English was the language of the common people, and
  • Norman French was the language of the nobility, courts, and government administration
A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry documenting the Anglo-Saxon defeat to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE.

What’s For Dinner?

Anglo-Saxons became the working-class hunters and farmers of England and, as they were the ones tending to the animals, they called the animals by their English names. The Norman rulers however more frequently encountered these animals when they were served on a plate, and in this culinary context called them by their French names.

Over the centuries this practice of using two different names was adopted into Middle English which then evolved into our Modern English. This linguistic duality, where a living animal is called one name in English while also being called by a different French name as food, has continued through to the present.

English animal vs French meat dual names include:

  • cow vs beef
  • calf vs veal
  • pig vs pork
  • sheep vs mutton
  • deer vs venison (although originally any hunted animal was called “venison”)
  • snail vs escargot

Interestingly we use the word “chicken” for both the animal and the meat. This is likely because chicken was one of the few meats that everyone could afford and since the common people were raising them and eating them, their practice of using the English language name in both context carried on.

Also the word for “fish” in French is “poisson” which is too close to the word “poison”. It’s thought that this linguistic similarity, and the danger if you get them confused, is why we kept the English language word for both the animal and the meat. We also tend to use the specific name for what kind of fish we are referring to (avoiding “fish” and “poisson” altogether).

Germanic Gods (and Saturn)

In the English language the days of the week are named for six Germanic gods … and the Roman god Saturn.

In the Indo-European family tree of languages, English is a descendant of Germanic languages. English also inherited elements of ancient Germanic culture such as Germanic mythology. The Germanic peoples took the Roman idea of naming the days of the week for various gods, but they changed the Roman gods to Germanic gods (except one).

• Sunday is named after the Germanic goddess Sunna (aka Sól in Norse mythology). Along with her brother Máni, she was taken from their father Mundilfari and placed in the sky. Sunna is the sun, moving across the sky in her chariot. Her brother is the moon, moving across the sky in his chariot. To make sure they keep moving the gods set two wolves to chase each sibling continuously. The wolf Sköll chases Sunna. From her we get the Sun’s day, or Sunday.

Monday is named for the Germanic god Máni, brother of Sunna (as mentioned above). He rides through the sky on his chariot and is chased by the wolf Hati. From him we get Moon’s day, or Monday.

Tuesday is named for the one-armed Germanic god of war Týr (aka Tíw), which became Tīwes day or Tuesday.

• Wednesday is named for Odin (aka Wōden), the central god of the Germanic pantheon of gods. From him we got Wōdnes day which became Wednesday.

Thursday has perhaps the most well-known origin. Pop culture has made the hammer-wielding god of thunder & lightning Thor (aka Þunor – pronounced “Thunor”) one of the most well known Germanic gods. His name is also the origin for our word thunder which, in modern German, is “donner” and gives us Donnerstag or “Thunder day / Thursday.” In English Thor’s day became Thursday.

Friday is named for the Germanic goddess Frigg (aka Frīja, or Frea). She was the wife of Odin and, given a good deal of mythological overlap, she and the goddess Freyja may have been the same character at one point. Frigg’s day became Friday.

Saturday is the odd man out. In the West Germanic languages Saturday comes from the Latin “Saturni dies” or Saturn’s day, named for the Roman god Saturn. Around Scandinavia however, in Norse Germanic languages, Saturday is called by different variations of lørdag or laugardagur, which translates as Bath / Laundry Day.

Added info: The reindeer pair Donder & Blitzen from the Christmas story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, come from the Germanic words for thunder & lightning.

Where is the “Orient”?

The Orient refers to places east of Europe, but where exactly depends on when you are asking.

Pinning down the location of the Orient depends on where you are and when you are. The word “orient” comes from the Latin for “east” so it generally means “the east” but more specifically it has meant “east of Europe.”

As Europeans traveled further abroad, the lands they considered “the East” aka “the Orient” was progressively pushed further east. For the Ancient Romans the Orient started as basically anything east of modern day Italy. The Eastern Mediterranean Levant area, Egypt, even along North Africa (which isn’t even east, it’s south of Europe) all became part of the “Orient.” These areas eventually became the “Near East” as the Orient came to include what is now the “Middle East” because eventually Europeans were interacting with people in the “Far East” coasts of Asia. All of these areas were at one point included in what was considered the “Orient.”

Because of this non-specific generalized term, things that are “oriental” can be from a pretty wide variety of cultures. While the Orient Express train line only went as far east as Istanbul, Oriental Medicine generally refers to medicine from much further away in East Asia. Oriental spices can range from the Middle East to the Far East of Asia, but Oriental rugs have an even wider range across two continents from Morocco to the Pacific coast of Asia.

Orientalism

As Europeans traveled to these “new” lands, western artists seized the opportunity to create exotic works of art based on these little know worlds. Orientalism was a movement especially present throughout the 19th century in music, literature, and the visual arts where these distant cultures were represented to varying degrees of authenticity. At best it was an opportunity for artists to create something exotic and new, but at worst it was an exploitative way to get attention. Orientalism could be an excuse to paint fairly salacious scenes of Muslim harems or Turkish baths with little accuracy.

Inspection of New Arrivals by Giulio Rosati who specialized in orientalist paintings

Like defining exactly where the Orient was, orientalized art ranges from North African motifs, to Turkish, to East Asian and everything in-between. Egyptian orientalism was kickstarted by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a fascination which also made its way to the United States (which is why the Washington Monument is, essentially, a massive Egyptian obelisk).

Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Léon Gérôme

As European powers pushed further eastward, such as the forced opening of Japan in 1858, orientalism turned more towards East Asian cultures. One example is the Gilbert & Sullivan opera The Mikado which was set in Japan but had no real interest in accuracy to Japanese culture. Gilbert & Sullivan were looking to capitalize on England’s latest fad for all things Japanese.

Loosely borrowing from Japanese culture, The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan

Problems with the Orient

The lack of specificity is just one of the problems with the term “oriental”. Oriental is also European-centric at the exclusion of other cultures. Further, as the term “oriental” came to include not just lands & cultures but also the people of those cultures, the word developed a long racist history of being used in anti-Asian propaganda.

As such the term has mostly fallen out of favor. The best advice is to be specific to where/what/who you are talking about.

Celtic to Gaelic to Irish

What we call “Celtic” is a bit of a misnomer that misses the bigger picture

People use the term “Celtic” to generally describe traditional Irish (as well as Scottish and Welsh) types of art, literature, music, etc. Celtic crosses, Celtic dance, Celtic jewelry, Celtic tattoos even, all have a certain “look” we call Celtic, but it didn’t start out that way.

What we call “Celtic” is largely because of the Celtic Revival movements of the 19th & 20th centuries. This term constitutes a series of narrowly selected cultural elements from a limited range of time in the British Isles. While this generated renewed interest in these particular traditional cultures, the Celtic Revival movements also oversimplified (and flat-out got wrong) other elements of Celtic culture.

Celtic

The Celtic Revival focused on the Celtic cultures found in the British Isles, but the Celts were a lot bigger than that. The Celts were a mix of tribal peoples who originated in central Europe (more or less around Austria) a few thousand years ago. Pinning down exactly where the Celts came from and when they came into being, is debatable.

Eventually the Celts worked their way westward claiming land across Europe and around the 6th century BCE began migrating up into the British Isles. In the 1st century BCE the Romans expanded their empire and killed off many of the Celts in mainland Europe in the process. As a result, the survival of the Celtic culture was primarily in the British Isles but also in a few small pockets of territory along coastal Western Europe.

The Celts had their own language which evolved over the centuries depending on where in Europe they were. Eventually Celtic got split into three categories:

  • Continental: which created a few now extinct languages
  • Britonic: which created a few extinct languages as well as Welsh, Cornish, and Breton.
  • Gaelic

Gaelic

In Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man the Celts became the Gaels who developed their own language of Gaelic. Gaelic then became the basis of three languages:

  • Manx: the (mostly extinct) language of the Isle of Man
  • Scottish Gaelic: spoken in the highlands & the Hebrides of Scotland, it is also called Scottish (which is different though than Scots, which is a different Scottish language that is Germanic based)
  • Irish Gaelic

Irish

The Gaels who made Ireland their home developed their own culture and their own Gaelic language of Irish Gaelic, also just called Irish. Today Irish is one of two official languages of the Republic of Ireland (the other being English). Because of early Irish Gaels leaving Ireland for Scotland and the Isle of Man, Irish Gaelic was the basis of what became Scottish Gaelic and Manx.

Today most people in Ireland speak English as their primary language. Most media, politics, and business is in English. That said, according to the 2016 Irish census 39.8% of the country (1.7 million people) said they could speak Irish. But of those Irish speakers only around 73,000 people (around 1.7% of the population) speak Irish as their primary language. To help the language survive & grow the Irish government has programs & plans in place such as Irish being a mandatory subject in school.

So while “Celtic” tends to mean all things Irish in pop culture, the true roots of Celtic culture are much older and much more diverse. While large parts of Irish culture (including the language) are originally Celtic, not all things Celtic are Irish.


Also: Celtic is pronounced with a hard “k” sound as “keltic”, unless you are referring to the Boston basketball team or the Glasgow football club which use a soft “s” sound as “seltic”.

Dogie, Not Doggy

In American Western slang, a dogie is a calf (not a dog).

The 1937 film Git Along Little Dogies features the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. He and others sing a variety of classic western songs such as Red River Valley, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, Oh! Susanna, and others. They even sing some of them as a medley with lyrics on the screen for the audience to sing along.

The movie’s title though, may leave some wondering exactly what a “dogie” is. The movie was named for a song of the same name, which existed as early as 1893. In the American West a dogie is slang for a stray or motherless calf. Nobody is exactly sure where the term came from but in the book Western Words, author Ramon Adams speculates that because small calves who are weened from their mothers too soon are unable to properly digest coarse grass, the resulting swelling of their bellies resembled a batch of sourdough starter in a sack. This became “dough-guts” and eventually just “dogies.”

The Chuck Yeager pilot voice

Airline pilots tend to talk the same because they’re all emulating Chuck Yeager.

In Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, he credits the calm … folksy … drawn out, matter-of-fact way that airline pilots tend to speak, to the world famous decorated American pilot Chuck Yeager.

Yeager grew up in West Virginia and entered the military in 1941. During WWII he went from being a mechanic to a decorated fighter pilot in just a few years. It was after the war however that he achieved the feat that made him a legend. On October 14, 1947 as a test pilot he flew the experimental plane Bell X-1 at Mach 1 and became the first human to break the sound barrier, the first to fly faster than the speed of sound. Also worth noting, he broke the sound barrier while flying with two broken ribs from a horse riding accident just a few days prior (which he “forgot” to report to his superiors).

It was because of his exploits as a pilot, and his generally cool demeanor, that led other pilots to want to be like him. His relatively neutral American accent and his vocal mannerisms soon became emulated by other military pilots. Then other pilots copied those pilots, military pilots become civilian commercial pilots, and so on.

Orange the fruit, orange the color

Orange the color was named for orange the fruit, not the other way around.

The English word for the color orange has a trail back through a few European languages but has its origins in the Sanskrit “nāraṅga” which was the name for the orange tree. Oranges the fruit came to Europe through Spain with the Moors, who in Arabic called the fruit “nāranj”.

From the Arabic name for the fruit, “nāranj” became “narange” in English in the 14th century and by sometime in the early 16th century the spelling became “orange”, and was then used to describe things that were the color of the fruit.

Some confusion may apply

Without a name for a color, cultures use the words they do have to describe the things around them. Because English didn’t have a word for the color orange until the 16th century, some things that are orange (or orange-ish) were labeled as red because it was the closest color that English had a word for. “Red” hair and the robin “redbreast” for example are really more orange than red, but they were named before English had the word “orange”.

Describing the colors of things before a language has names for those colors had been a problem across cultures for a long time. The Ancient Greeks had a very limited palette of color names to choose from. For example, there seems to have been no word in Ancient Greek for the color “blue” so in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey he describes both the sky and the sea as being a wine / bronze color. Even stranger, he also describes sheep as being wine colored.