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Ask Etymology Ethelwulf, Part 2:

In the comments to the previous Ask Etymology Ethelwulf post, In Which I Gave The True Etymology Of The World "Umbrella," a commenter asked me to explain "agnostic," "helicopter," "amnesia," and "pregnant." I did so in the comments, but who reads the comments anyway? So I thought these new etymologies (with minor alterations) were worth posting in the main text:

"Agnostic" is from "agnus" (lamb) + "stick" — lamb on a stick; this is a derogatory term for unbelievers, dating back to ancient times in the Middle East, similar to the modern derogatory term "cafeteria Catholicism."

No, just joking! That was obviously made up. Actually, the "agnus" part is real, but the second part is from "Stygis," the river Styx of the underworld. Originally the label "agnostic" wasn't applied against members of all religions, but just those who thought that Christianity, with its specific miracles like the Resurrection, was unprovable. Early Christians were horrified by this, not because it was unbelief — that was of course the most common view in ancient times — but because it was the refusal to take a stand on an important spiritual question. Remember how, in Dante's Inferno, there's a special place just outside of Hell reserved for the cowards, rejected by Heaven and not accepted by Hell, who didn't take a stand in life? That has direct roots in the beliefs of the early Christians, who taught that those who neither believed nor disbelieved would be worse than damned — in classical metaphorical terms, stranded at the Styx (i.e., not allowed to cross the Styx into the underworld) — by reason of the lamb of God ("agno-Stygian" or "agnostycus").

"Helicopter" is from "helio-" (sun) + "Copt" — a reference to early Christian writings of the Patristic period (written in Coptic by Church Fathers living in Alexandria, and possibly inspired by ancient Egyptian sources) in which the souls of the dead were depicted traveling up to the sun in machines powered by angel wings ("heliocoptic transfiguration").

"Amnesia" comes from the Latin "amnis" (plural "amnes"), meaning "river." Recall that (while "denial" is not a river in Egypt) forgetfulness, to the ancients, was a river named Lethe; so to forget was to be "taken by the river" ("fluitare secundum amni Lethe"), and "amnesia" was just the abstract-noun form of that concept.

"Pregnant" is from "precor" (the Latin verb "to entreat, pray for, wish for," hence the Italian expression "prego!" and our modern word "prayer") + "nans, nantis" (the present participle of the Latin verb "no, nare," meaning "to swim"). This isn't too hard to understand — any expectant parents wish that their child will be born, and the traditional metaphor for birth was swimming (Ausschwimmung in the archaic Germanic sources).

You can check out the comments to the original post, where I also explain the etymology of the word "Shhhh."

Byomtov (mail):
That's odd. I thought "agnostic" came from the belief that doubters would suffer agonies after death. It was originally "agonystick," one destined for agony, but changed to "agnystick" in Early High Middle Germano-English and then to the current spelling a century or two later.
3.5.2007 11:15am
CEB:
Interesting stuff. You say that "Cafeteria Catholic" is a modern term. I always thought that it referred to ascetics who sought other forms of self-mortification and penance than the diet of worms? Am I wrong?
3.5.2007 11:16am
Luke G. (mail):
...

These are made up, right? Oxford English Dictionary lists radically different etymologies for some of these words.
3.5.2007 11:39am
godfodder (mail):
I can't wait to "Wow!" my colleagues with my erudition at our next watercooler chat! I can almost taste that promotion...
3.5.2007 11:40am
Tracy Johnson (www):
Obviously you can't trust wikipedia as any Greek lexicon or Seminarian will tell you agnostic is from the Greek "gnosis" or "knowledge" with prefix "a" is a negative modifier or "not knowing". Where does Wiki get this tripe?
3.5.2007 11:47am
Eluchil:
I also hope that this is some sort of joke. Since these etymologies range from the highly unlikely to the nonsensical.
3.5.2007 11:57am
markm (mail):
Luke, yes, Etymology Ethelwulf is a jokester. He almost took me in with the umbrella derivation (although I did wonder at what seemed to be a Latin translation of, "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.")
3.5.2007 11:58am
donaldk2 (mail):
Good heavens! I am shocked that anyone would take these seriously. This is common-room (Oxbridge) humor.
3.5.2007 12:01pm
CEB:
Tracy Johnson piqued my interest with the word "tripe." It turns out it originally referred to the writings of the Romans, regarded by Christians as heretical and nonsensical. While the root of the word is the ancient Greek "triptychos", the word arose into the medieval period from the name for an Ancient Roman writing tablet, which had two hinged panels flanking a central one.
3.5.2007 12:15pm
BC:
This is a joke.
3.5.2007 12:19pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Byomtov, CEB: That's the spirit!
3.5.2007 1:40pm
marghlar:
Another little known etymology involves the word hunger, which arises, not from the old English word hungar, but rather from the growling noises made by ravenous Huns.
3.5.2007 1:50pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Also "philosophy," which comes from "phyllo-Sofia," a term for a layered Bulgarian dough....
3.5.2007 1:52pm
JB:
Agnus Dei is the Lamb of God...but in Hinduism, of course, it's Angus Dei.
3.5.2007 2:38pm
aces:
I'm reminded of Ehelwulf's distinguished ancestor, the King in "Huckleberry Finn." Here's an example of the King's etymological research:

"I say orgies, not because it's the common term, because it ain't -- obsequies bein' the common term -- but because orgies is the right term. Obsequies ain't used in England no more now -- it's gone out. We say orgies now in England. Orgies is better, because it means the thing you're after more exact. It's a word that's made up out'n the Greek orgo, outside, open, abroad; and the Hebrew jeesum, to plant, cover up; hence inter. So, you see, funeral orgies is an open er public funeral."
3.5.2007 3:14pm
von (mail) (www):
I like to think of myself as a pretentious twit, but the Ethelwulf posts are too much even for me.

With all due respect, of course.
3.5.2007 4:30pm
Ken Arromdee:
Let's not forget the classic. "politics" = "poly" (many) + "ticks" (little bloodsucking insects).
3.5.2007 4:59pm
Pyrthroes (mail):
Look up "catsup" vs. "ketchap" sometime. The results are surprising, and reflect not only the California Gold Rush but transcontinental railroads, Irish and Italian immigration, in fact America's entire late-19th Century economic history plus subsequent franchise-eateries throughout the 20th.

Hard to be humble when you're a Mandarin.
3.5.2007 9:06pm