The Fake That Launched a Thousand Slips

By Rob Kyff

May 13, 2020 3 min read

When the origin of a word seems obvious, beware! Consider these tricksters:

Launch: You might assume the small motorboat known as a "launch" is so named because it's "launched" from shore. In fact, "launch" derives from the Malay word "lanchar" (quick) because such small boats were fast.

"Lanchar" was adopted by the Portuguese as "lancha," meaning "a small boat for sailing," and entered English with the same meaning in 1697.

The "launch" that means "to throw forward" derives from the Old North French "lancher," meaning "to hurl or pierce"; it's the same root that gives us "lance."

Agita: This word for heartburn or indigestion, and, by extension, anxiety and distress, would seem to derive from "agitate." After all, agita (pronounced AH-jih-tuh) is often caused by physical or mental agitation. Grab the antacid!

In fact, "agita" was imported into English during the 1980s from the Tuscan word for acid, "acido." First used in the New York City region, it spread to the rest of the U.S. during the 1990s.

Some Italians pronounce "acido" as "AH-ja-da," and the English spelling "agita" is an attempt to reflect this pronunciation.

Surname: This word for a person's last name or family name is linked to "sir" and "sire," right? After all, noblemen (sirs) were often the first to acquire last names, and "surname" was often spelled "sir-name" or "sire-name" until the 1800s.

In fact, "surname" has nothing to do with "sir" or "sire." The prefix "sur-" means "over, above, upon." So, a "surname" is a name added to a person's first name, often reflecting his or her profession ("Baker," "Weaver") or paternity (John's son becomes "Johnson").

This "sur-" prefix also shows up in "surtax" and "surcharge, which, as many of us have painfully discovered, means a payment over and above the usual fee.

This sense of "sur-" also sizzles in "sirloin," from the French "surlonge" (above the loin). According to a popular etymology, an English king — John I, Charles II or Henry VIII, take your pick — once found this cut of meat so satisfying that he knighted it "Sir Loin of Beef."

This charming story is entirely concocted, though, given the scarcity of beef these days, anyone lucky enough to score a sirloin steak might be tempted to knight it.

One word that DOES derive from "sir" is "surly," meaning crabby or churlish. "Surly," originally spelled "sirly," referred to the imperious, arrogant behavior of "sirs." Of course, no aristocrats would ever act that way today. Grab the antacid!

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Photo credit: 851878 at Pixabay

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