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Diversity / University

Turn, turn, turn.

Dear Word Detective: If “diversity” means “difference and variation,” what does “university” mean? Are these words related somehow? — Travis Williams.

You betcha. “Diversity” and “university” are indeed related, not only to each other, but to a rather large, lumbering herd of other words. The common building block in all these words is the Latin verb “vertere,” which means, literally, “to turn,” but has developed a wide range of figurative uses based on that general sense of “turning.”

“Diversity” as a noun is, in its simplest form, the quality of being “diverse,” an adjective meaning either “differing from each other” (“Despite the regulations regarding proper uniform, the volunteers showed up wearing a diverse range of clothing”) or “composed of distinct elements, qualities or characteristics” (“Columbus is a diverse city, composed of both diehard Buckeye fans and people who have better things to do in the fall, such as watching squirrels duke it out with chipmunks at the bird feeder”). The specific root of “diverse” is the Latin verb “divertere” (the prefix “di” or “dis,” meaning “aside”) meaning “to turn aside.” The same root gave us our English verb “to divert,” and a close relative, “divortere,” gave us “divorce,” wherein folks “turn away” a spouse. Meanwhile, back in Latin, the participle form “diversus” (literally “turned aside”) came to mean “separate,” and, filtered through Old French, became our “diverse” meaning “separate” or “different.” Interestingly, “diverse” was also adopted into English from Old French in the form “divers,” with the slightly different meaning of “several” (“There are directions to be given to divers workmen before I start,” 1860). “Diversity” first appeared as a noun in the 14th century with the basic sense of “varied;” for a while in the 15th and 16th centuries it actually meant the quality of “deviating from accepted behavior,” i.e., being wrong or evil, but with the rise of democracy as a governing system “diversity” acquired its modern positive connotations.

The root of “university” is “universe,” meaning the sum of everything, the cosmos, which was borrowed, via Old French, from the Latin “universum.” That Latin word combined our pal “vertere” (to turn) with “uni” (one) to give a basic sense of “turned into one,” or “all taken together.” The term “university” in our modern scholastic sense dates to the 14th century, and originally referred to the gathering of various scholarly societies, guilds, student bodies and the like within one organization of learning. The goal of such “universities” was to offer structured higher education in a variety of non-vocational subjects and award degrees to graduates.

There are, as I noted above, a wide variety of other English words that spring from that handy Latin “vertere,” including “version,” “versus,” “verse,” “adverse,” “vertigo,” “vertical,” “invert,” “pervert,” “revert,” “convert,” “conversation,” and so on until the cows come home. “Advertise,” for instance, comes from the Latin “advertere” (to turn towards), and originally meant “to warn.” The modern meaning of “offer two Big Macs for a buck” only appeared in the 18th century. Many of these words begin with standard Latin prefixes such as “in” (in), “ad” (to), “con” (against), “re” (again) and so on, but have acquired meanings substantially beyond the simple blocks of which they are built.

Mommy, Mama, Mom, Daddy, Dada, Dad, Papa, Pappy, et alia

Anything but Meemaw is fine with me.

Dear Word Detective: I was born in Europe and grew up calling my parents “Mama” and “Papa.” In Canada, where I have lived since I was a teen, all my classmates and most kids grow up calling their fathers “Dad,” and my now-adult-friends’ babies are taught to say “Dada” also. I never paid much attention before but recently I noticed that in some older English books (like by Jane Austen) children do call their fathers “Papa.” Do you know why and when English speakers decided to veer away from calling fathers “Papa”? Is this a Europe vs. North America thing? — Diana.

Huh. I was born in New Jersey and grew up calling my parents Vito and Estelle. Just kidding, except that I really was born in New Jersey, so I’m allowed to joke about it. But this is a fascinating question; so fascinating that I’m going to “answer” it even though I don’t really have a slam-dunk definitive answer to give you. In my case, I grew up calling my parents “Daddy” and “Mommy” until I became a teenager, when I switched to “Father” and “Mother,” at least when speaking of them in the third person. (What can I say? The New England Wasp Force was powerful in my neighborhood.) I’m pretty sure my older sisters stuck with “Daddy” and “Mommy,” but at least one of my older brothers used to refer to my father as “Pop” with an insouciance I envied. My mother loathed “Mom,” so no one used it. Our own grown son calls us “Dad” and “Mom,” which is just fine with me.

The first thing to note about “Mommy,” “Mama,” “Mom,” “Daddy,” “Dada,” “Dad,” “Papa,” “Pappy” and all the rest of such familiar forms is that none of them actually “mean” anything beyond “Mother” or “Father.” Yes, similar forms can be found in the ancient roots of language, but they didn’t mean anything back then, either. But wait, it gets weirder. Words similar to “Mama” and “Papa,” with minor variations, pop up in many widely different languages (though in some languages the terms are reversed or rearranged somewhat, e.g., “father” is “mama” in Georgian, while “mother” is “deda” and “papa” means “grandfather”).

Linguists believe that the explanation for the popularity of this small set of words serving as familiar terms for “mother” and “father” lies not in the past of the words themselves, but in how infant humans acquire language. The first vocal efforts of a baby almost always involve the sounds easiest to make: the “bilabials” p, b, and m, repeated, as babies often do. The parents, witnessing the child’s first forays into vocalization (beyond screaming and gurgling), modestly assume that the kid is addressing them by name. Lather, rinse, repeat a few billion times, and you’ve got an entire planet using variations on “Mama” and “Papa.” The Latin “mater” (mother) and “pater” (father), and, to go way back, the Indo-European roots that produced them, almost certainly spring from this same source. Of course, the interpretation by the parents of the child’s noises as a form of personal address is a classic case of “confirmation bias,” and the infant cannot possibly know that “Mama” means “Mother” (or whatever the local custom is). But he or she soon will.

The specific form “Papa” was introduced into English from French in the 17th century, and was used by adults primarily in the social elite as well as by their children. Use of the term in Britain has actually been falling since the mid-19th century, and the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “Papa” today is largely a North American usage (in which case, it must be nearly extinct among English-speakers). The “native” English form has always been “Dad/Daddy/Dada,” and I’d be willing to bet it outranks “Papa” in North America today by a country mile.

To the extent that Europeans speaking English are influenced by other languages, I think that the greater traditional popularity of “Papa” in French, Italian, etc., is the reason you may have heard it more over there. The relative lack of traction of “Papa” in North America may also be partly due to immigrants in the 20th century wishing to shed the “old ways” and get with the “Daddy and Mommy” pattern of the New World.

Brass tacks

“Speak no nonsense” is the important one.

Dear Word Detective:  Let’s get down to brass tacks … or is it “brass tax”? Where does this term come from? — Matthew Cary.

Gee, that time already? This question is one of the hardy perennials of the word-origin-answering business, and about every fifteen years I take another stab at it (which is to say that this is exactly the second time I’ve tackled it, the first being in 1998). But it set me to wondering when I last saw anything (apart from screws, etc.) actually made of brass (which is an alloy of copper and zinc notable for its rich yellowish sheen). I had a little cannon made of brass when I was a kid (henceforth to be known as “Roseboom”), and the replacement faucets I installed in our ancient shower last year were made of brass (and cost nearly $100 a pair), but most of the metal you meet these days is either low-grade steel or some weird ugly aluminum alloy. But brass is cool. Brass has heft. Brass is permanent. Bring back brass! Fun fact: our word “brass” comes from the Old English “braes,” but the metal it referred to at that time was actually the alloy of copper and tin we now call “bronze.”

The durability of brass has long made it a popular metaphor for personal fortitude, although not always in a positive direction. Since the late 16th century, “brass” has been used figuratively to mean “courage,” “boldness,” and especially “impudence” or “shamelessness” (“I entered the Room without astonishing the Company by my Brass,” 1740), and “bold as brass” has meant “impudent” since the late 18th century.

Incidentally, if I may digress for a moment, the phrase “cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” almost certainly refers to the “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil” kitschy brass monkey statuettes popular as home decorations in the 1800s, and not to an imaginary contraption called a “monkey” that supposedly held cannonballs on a Royal Navy warship. Comparisons involving heat and brass monkeys were also common at that time (“Under a sun which, as Shorty said, ‘was hot enough to melt the nose [off] a brass monkey’.” Omoo, Herman Melville, 1847). Sorry to rant, but that stupid story about the cannonballs drives me (and Roseboom) crazy.

To “get down to brass tacks” has meant “to deal with basic questions; to face the facts and deal with reality” since the early 1860s (“This bold sister was the first … to get down to brass tacks in a discussion of the scandal…” 1903). There have been a range of theories proposed to explain the connection between “brass tacks” and unvarnished truth, such as one tracing it to the unpleasant chore of reupholstering a chair or sofa, a fairly arduous process that requires removing the brass tacks holding the fabric to the frame. A more plausible theory traces the phrase to the old general store of 19th century America, where a line of brass tacks (or nails) were set into the counter (usually a foot apart) to aid in measuring fabric or other materials to be cut. Thus, to “get down to brass tacks” would be to finally pick a fabric from among those in stock and have it measured and cut for purchase. This theory has the advantage of being rooted in what was a very common practice at the time, as well as being a plausible match for the sense of the phrase.

One other intriguing theory, however, suggests that “brass tacks” is actually Cockney rhyming slang. Rhyming slang, originally a “secret language” of the London criminal underworld, uses unrelated words and phrases (“trouble and strife”) to stand in for the word actually meant (in this classic example, “wife”). “Brass tacks,” in this theory, stands for “facts,” which makes perfect sense, but there is a problem. “Get down to brass tacks” is almost certainly a US coinage (it seems to have originated in Texas, in fact), and rhyming slang has never been very popular in the US. On the other hand, the near-perfect rhyme of “tacks” and “facts” is a heck of a coincidence if it isn’t rhyming slang. In any case, the jury is still out on “brass tacks,” though I tend to favor the “general store” theory.