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Jewish World Review Dec. 16, 2004 / 4 Teves 57645

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

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'Derrick'; 'scales falling from their eyes'; 'anthem'


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Dear Editor:

Just curious: is the term "derrick,'' as in "oil derrick'' related to the name "Derrick''?

— A.S., Fort Worth, Texas

Dear A.S.:

Indeed it is. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1, there was an executioner named Derick. This Derick fellow became quite well known because he handled the beheadings of some famous people, including the second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, who had at one time been a favorite of the queen. (Incidentally, a street ballad that was popular at the time reported that the earl had previously saved the life of this same Derick.)

Derick didn't limit himself to beheadings, however. He also handled the hangings that were the lot of condemned commoners. Eventually the populace gave the gallows where Derick did his work the name "Derick.'' The usage spread, and throughout the 17th century, "derrick''(by then usually spelled with a second "r'') was used as a term for both a hangman and a gallows. These senses of the term eventually became obsolete, but in the next century "derrick'' began to be used for a gallows-like hoisting apparatus that employed a tackle rigged at the end of a beam. Later still, "derrick'' came to be used for the framework or tower over a deep drill, such as an oil well, that is used for supporting boring tackle or for hoisting and lowering.

Dear Editor:

When someone is suddenly able to understand something or see the truth of something, it is described as the "scales falling from their eyes.'' Can you tell me where this phrase comes from?

— J.S., Sausalito, Calif.


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Dear J.S.:

The English language is rich with biblical allusions, and the "falling scales'' phrase is one of them. It comes from Chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles in the story of Paul's conversion to Christianity. According to the story, Paul was traveling to Damascus when he suddenly heard a voice call to him. A bright light appeared and he was blinded. He traveled on to the city as the voice had instructed and waited. A disciple found Paul there and laid hands on him. At that moment, something that looked like fish scales fell from Paul's eyes and he regained his sight. By the 17th century this story had influenced people to refer figuratively to scales falling or being removed from their eyes.

Dear Editor:

I'm curious about the origin of the word "anthem.'' I can't think of any similar words it might be related to.

— M.E., Jacksonville, Fla.

Dear M.E.:

"Anthem'' is one of our older words, arriving in English before the 12th century. It derives ultimately from the Greek "antiphonos,'' which in turn is formed from "anti-'' plus "phone,'' meaning "sound.''

The oldest sense of "anthem'' is the same as the current sense of English "antiphon'': "a line or verse sung as a response during a religious service.'' "Antiphon'' is a doublet of "anthem,'' which means that it came into English by a different path (and in this case, about five hundred years later) but from the same root word.

"Anthem'' eventually came to mean "a sacred vocal composition with words usually from the Scriptures,'' from which sense it developed the more general meaning "a song or hymn of praise or gladness'' in the 16th century. It was this general sense that in time led to its use in referring to a composition that serves as the musical symbol of a nation. Such a composition could be anything from a hymn or march to a fanfare. The term "national anthem'' seems to have been first used in reference to Great Britain's "G-d Save the Queen'' (or "G-d Save the King''), which is known to have been performed as early as 1745, although it was not referred to as a "national anthem'' or "royal anthem'' until the 19th century.


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