Monday, June 16, 2008

Email - Word Origin

Reinvent, Reuse, Recycle
By Anu Garg

Anu Garg is the founder of, an online community of word lovers in 200 countries. He has authored three books on the origins of words. In this new column, "On Words With Anu Garg," he will explore the origins and metamorphoses of words throughout history, from brand-new words (such as locavore -- one who prefers to eat locally sourced food) to words that have been reconditioned, retooled and overhauled so much that they no longer resemble what they were when they rolled off the assembly line of the language.

If you were asked to guess when the word e-mail was coined, chances are you'd say perhaps a couple of decades back. Would it surprise you to learn that the first use of the word is recorded from around the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)? Clearly, Emerson didn't use e-mail to send his manuscripts to his publisher. In fact, he couldn't even call his editor to ask when his next book was coming out -- there was no commercial telephone service then. In any case, if he missed e-mail, we can safely assume he didn't miss spam.

What was e-mail doing at the time when there were no computers, telephones or even promises of large sums of Nigerian loot? Well, the answer is that it was a different type of e-mail. That e-mail meant enamel, as in the glossy paint applied to metal, pottery, etc. In French, the word émailler still means "to enamel," not to send out a message using electronic mail. The word mail in electronic mail is of Germanic origin, meaning a bag.

The word chainmail is even older, from the 1820s. The word referred to the body armor made of interlocking links, not the e-mails circulating old jokes. The word mail in chainmail means one of the rings of which armor was made, and is of Latinate origin.

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The 26 letters of the English alphabet can yield billions of combinations, yet we still bump into words that appear to be reincarnations. Sometimes we recycle an old word for new purposes, sometimes we coin a word not knowing that a word with the same spelling existed earlier. I often hear from people who believe they have just coined a catchy word: e-dress for e-mail address, until I ask them to Google it. And sometimes words that may look alike actually have different origins.

With the start of the Harry Potter mania in 1997, a new word entered the popular culture: muggle. In the Potterworld, a muggle is an ordinary person, one with no magical powers. By extension, we use the word to indicate someone lacking a particular skill; one, who doesn't have a special ability, a novice, one outside a field, one uninitiated in a field. Before J.K. Rowling made "muggle" a household word, it has had nearly as many lives as a black cat. The Oxford English Dictionary shows the first citation for this word is from the 13th century, and defines it as "a tail resembling that of a fish." Since then it has been used to describe a young woman, a sweetheart and later marijuana. Over the years many writers (including Lewis Carroll) have used the word Muggle as a name for their characters, it's just that with the popularity of the "Harry Potter" books it became better known.

When did the words google, yahoo and pixilated first appear in English? The last few decades? Here are the years of the first known citations for these words: google (1907), yahoo (1726) and pixilated (1848). Welcome back to the future.

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