Anoka County history: Etymology, study of words’ origins

The study of the origins of words and expressions is called etymology.

I find it a fascinating pursuit and I collect word histories like other people collect coins or stamps.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Did you ever wonder why a graveyard for those without family is called Potter’s Field?

A potter’s job was to make pots out of clay.  Whenever he found clay that was suitable, he dug it out of the ground, leaving a big hole, or an entire field pockmarked with holes.

A criminal, or a stranger, or someone without family or friends to bury him, might be stuffed into one of these holes to save the trouble and expense of digging a proper grave.

Hence Potter’s Field.

Throughout America’s pioneer era elegant ladies preferred their dresses be made of silk, while women of more limited means were dependent on wool, linen, or cotton fabrics including chintz.

Weavers and dyers in India had been making chintz for many years.

It was a cotton calico, usually in a vivid floral print with a shiny polish that made it look like silk.

Today something is chintzy if it does not have the quality it pretends to have.

Ever work the graveyard shift?

In the mid-1800s medicine was crude and ineffective against diseases that swept through entire communities.

Sometimes a patient in a deep coma might be mistaken for one already dead.

The fear of being buried alive was widespread and terrifying.

So a bell was erected over the grave and a string was threaded through the coffin lid and tied to a finger of the deceased.

Family, or a hired employee, would keep watch for several days and nights.

If the deceased awoke and pulled the string, the bell would ring and the watchers would dig him up.

It must have been an uncomfortable job at any time, but especially tedious and spooky at night alone in the cemetery.

Hence the graveyard shift.

The term was also used by sailors to describe the long lonely hours of the night watch.

During World War I, both sides were trying to invent an armored assault vehicle, while protecting information about their progress from the enemy.

On Sept. 15, 1916, the first prototype was tested in action at Pozieres Ridge on the western front.

The British and Americans, working together, deliberately leaked the information that the vehicle was designed to bring fresh water to the troops at the front lines.

As a result, an armored attack vehicle is called a tank, as in water tank.

We still say, “Tape the movie” even though digital technology has long replaced audio tape for recordings.

Next time grandpa refers to the refrigerator as the ice box, or calls your I-pod a stereo, you’ll be able to understand how language changes.

Editor’s note: Maria King is a volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society.

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