Jewish World Review May 18, 2004 / 29 Iyar, 5764
Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
'Of the first water'; horses and horseradish; more
An "augur'' is someone who can tell the future by interpreting omens, but change just one vowel, to "auger,'' and you get a tool for boring holes. Do these words come from the same root? If so, what is that root's meaning?
B.E., Idaho Falls, Idaho
Good guess, but despite their similar spelling, "augur'' and "auger'' are actually unrelated.
The word "augur'' originally referred to a member of the highest class of official diviners of ancient Rome, later broadening to cover anyone reputed to foretell events by omens. The Roman augurs examined such things as the behavior of birds and the entrails of sacrificial animals in order to determine the will of the gods and then recommend the best political or military course of action to the leaders. The word itself comes from Latin and is of somewhat uncertain origin. It is probably related in some way to the Latin term "augere,'' meaning "to increase'' or "to carry out.'' "Augere'' is the same word that gave us English "auction,'' "augment,'' and "author.'' Another theory, however, holds that "augur'' derives from "avis'' (meaning "bird'') plus "-gar'' (a root associated with the Latin word "garrire,'' meaning "to talk'').
"Auger,'' however, has a completely different etymology. It derives from the Old English word "nafogar,'' which is itself akin to two other Old English words - "nafu,'' meaning "nave'' (as in the hub of a wheel), and "gar,'' meaning "spear.'' In Middle English, "nafogar'' became "nauger'' and then "auger.'' The initial "n'' was lost as the result of false division of "a nauger'' - the same process that gave us "an apron'' from "a napron'' and "an adder'' from "a nadder.''
Every now and then, I hear something described as being "of the first water,'' in other words, the best. Can you shed some light on where this expression comes from and what it originally meant?
L.E., Rockaway, N.J.
The phrase "of the first water'' originally described gemstones that were considered the best of their class. Back in the 17th century, the word "water'' was used to grade diamonds. Each stone was rated first water, second water, or third water. A stone that was regarded as better than all others was of the first water. The association of gem brilliancy with water is presumed to have originated with the use by Arab traders of an equivalent word meaning "luster.'' However, it has been noted that gems found in wet locations, for example river beds, are generally of higher quality than those found in dry locations. For this reason, gemologists now use the term "river'' to designate a particularly fine gem. Although the use of "water'' to classify gemstones died out by the mid-19th century, the expression "of the first water'' eventually worked its way into the general vocabulary as an adjective meaning "first-rate.''
During dinner recently, my young nephew asked, "What part of the horse does horseradish come from?'' Everyone laughed, but no one knew where the name "horseradish'' comes from. Can you explain?
W. H., Irving, Texas
Your nephew's question is perfectly understandable. Someone unfamiliar with all the idiosyncrasies of our language would naturally assume that horseradish comes from a horse. After all, peanut butter comes from peanuts and orange juice comes from oranges. Most grownups know, of course, that the "horse'' in "horseradish'' doesn't denote the condiment's origin, but they may not know where the term comes from.
You might tell your nephew that although horseradish doesn't come from a horse, the horse does figure prominently in its name. The horse is a large, not especially delicate animal. As a result, one sense of the adjective "horse'' is "large or coarse of its kind.'' The condiment we call "horseradish'' comes from the pungent root of a tall, coarse, white-flowered herb of the mustard family known scientifically as "Armoracia lapathifolia'' and more familiarly as "horseradish.'' Horseradish isn't the only plant designated "horse'' because of its coarse quality. Others include "horsebean,'' "horse cucumber,'' and "horse mushroom.''
Appreciate this column? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
05/06/04: 'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services