Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review May 18, 2004 / 29 Iyar, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

'Of the first water'; horses and horseradish; more | Dear Editor:

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

Dear B.E.:

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.''

Donate to JWR

Dear Editor:

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.

Dear L.E.:

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.''

Dear Editor:

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

Dear W.H.:

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.

Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster column, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, Mass. 01102. Comment by clicking here.


05/06/04: 'Historic' v. 'historical'; 'prestigious' = 'trickery'?; 'can of corn' as sports phrase
04/27/04: Derivation of 'bozo'; 'elt'; 'spill the beans'
04/21/04: Meaning of "budget'' in the word "fussbudget''; "bleeding hearts''; "skycap''
04/01/04: "Thin red line''; "doak"; "level playing field"
03/22/04: "King Canute"; "vodka"; "Cheese it. The cops!''
03/16/04: "Carrot and stick''; "hue and cry''; Where did the term "flea market'' originate?
03/09/04: Going "haywire"; "close, but no cigar"; "mahatma"
03/01/04: "Roundheel'' and "well-heeled''; "milquetoast"; "sick as a dog''
02/26/04: "Charley horse"; "`Foolproof''; "cracker-barrel''
02/17/04: "Dunce''; titles "Mr.'' and "Mrs.''; "under the weather''
02/10/04: "Turnpike''; "dead reckoning''
02/02/04: "Mutt"; "lobby" in its political sense; "procrustean bed"
01/27/04: "Decimate"; "duende"; a dessert "junket"?
01/14/04: Is "MacGuffin" related to all the "Mac" and "Mc" words we've been hearing about recently?; "afghans" and "Afghans"; "since Hector was a pup"
01/09/04: Confused about the word "hearsay"; "Burgle"; "waiting in line" or "waiting on line"?
12/31/03: The past tense of "plead''; Is "old adage'' redundant?; Where did "lounge lizard'' come from?
12/15/03: "Ostracize" and "oyster''?; Where does the "mentor'' come from?; "jeopard''
12/02/03: "Karats'' and "carats'' — meaning of and difference between; why apostrophe in "'cello''?; "hell-bent for leather''
11/18/03: "Hoosegow,''; why the little finger is called the "`pinkie''; difference between "lady'' and "dame''
11/13/03: 'Take it on the lam'; 'decorum'; 'you look like the wreck of the Hesperus'
11/03/03: Origin of "hypnosis"/"hypnotism"; "all right" or "alright"; emote
10/28/03: "Blue plate special"; how to use "hoi polloi''; "Peck's Bad Boy''
10/20/03: Who was the person the artist who first used "silhouette" as an art form?; why are they called migraine headaches?; origin of "keep one's shirt on"
10/13/03: "Grey'' in "greyhound'' has nothing to do with the color?; "at loggerheads''
09/29/03: Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche"
09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

©2004 Merriam-Webster Inc.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services