Word Histories

by Craig M. Carver


Last January three national labor unions battled for the right to organize and represent the 7,687 fleet-service employees of USAir. The president of the Teamsters, Ron Carey, confident of winning the labor election, said, “We’ve got the resources and the clout to offer these workers the kind of contract protections they need.” The ancient source of clout (political influence or power) is the Indo-European root *gel-, “to form into a ball,” which led to the proto-Germanic *klut-, “a lump, mass, piece of stuff,” becoming in Old English clūt, “a small piece of cloth, metal, or other material; a patch.” To clout meant “to patch” something, and more specifically “to patch clumsily, to botch” (“So. by what right or wrong soeare, Spaine clouteth Crownes together”—William Warner, Albions England, 1602). Because to patch something clumsily is to slap or smack it together, clout came to mean “to beat or strike heavily” (“The late Queen of Spain took off one of her chapines, and clowted Olivarez about the noddle with it"—James Howell, Familiar Letters Domestic and Forren, c. 1645), and the noun came to mean “a heavy blow or cuff.” The modern meaning of clout originated in the Chicago political scene of the late 1930s, where “a heavy blow” took on the sense of power or influence (“No one...gets anywhere in politics or business on his merits. He has to have the ‘clout’ from behind”— Harold Gosnell, Machine Politics, 1937).


Journalists and editorialists had a field day last January covering the matriculation of a woman at The Citadel, one of the last all-male bastions of southern military schooling. “As male cadets looked on with stony displeasure,” Peter Applebome wrote in The New York Times, “a young South Carolinian today became the first woman to take classes ... at The Citadel, breaking a 151-year-old tradition . . .and tiring a resounding salvo in the nation’s battle of the sexes.”Salvo (a discharge of artillery or firearms) has its origin in the Indo-European root *soloor *sal-. meaning “whole,” which became in Latin salvus, “whole, uninjured, healthy,” and the derivative verb salvere, “to be in good health.”The Romans used the imperative form of the verb, salvē, as a greeting meaning “Be in good health!” or simply “Hail!” The Latin salute led to the French salve, meaning “a salute by simultaneously discharging firearms,” which Italian borrowed as salva. English, in turn, borrowed the Italian, changing the -a to -o ("Display the Standard, let the News be shown, With Salvos raise the Genius of the Town”—Thomas D’Urfey, Wit and Mirth, 1719). The Italian word also had the extended sense “a volley against an enemy,” which English adopted too (“Our Leader ordered the two Wings to. . .give (the enemy] a Salvo on each Wing with their Shot”—Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719) and has further extended to mean “a forceful verbal or written assault.”


When Picabo Street won the Olympic silver medal in the women’s downhill skiing event last winter, her name attracted amused interest. It seems that Street went three years without a name, though her mother began calling her Peekaboo after a game that the toddler loved. When it came time to make her name official, Street’s mother told The New York Times, “the spelling for Peekaboo seemed silly, but since that’s what we were calling her and she was third-generation Idahoan, we decided to name her after the town” of Picabo, Idaho. Silly (foolish, ridiculous, inane) is from the Old English gesāetig (happy), which by Chaucer’s time had become seely or sely, meaning “happy, fortunate” (“For sely is that deeth, . . .That, ofte ycleped, cometh and endeth peyne” —Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde, c. 1374). By the fifteenth century seely began to be spelled silly, reflecting a change in the middle vowel sound. The metamorphosis of the word’s original meaning into its contemporary one was long and gradual: from “happy” to “blessed” to “pious, holy” to “innocent, harmless" to “deserving pity, pitiable” (“With these or the like exclaimes, this silly aged King ... lay still a while”—William Caxton, Blanchardyn and Eglantine, 1489) to “insignificant, weak, feeble” to “unsophisticated, rustic, ignorant” (“To make the sillie people believe that the contrarie is maintained by the Bishops”—Richard Hooker, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, 1597). This last meaning developed into “lacking common sense, foolish” (“Her soul is silly, but her body’s wise”—Edward Young, Love of Fame, 1728).