clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


Question: I was watching a baseball game with some friends the other day, and we somehow got into a discussion about the word "umpire." None of us could figure out how it might have originated. Please explain.

- T. H., Saratoga, N.Y.

Answer: The medieval French adjective "nonper" was a compound formed from "non," meaning "not," and "per," meaning "equal." It meant "not paired, odd (of a number)" or "not equaled, incomparable." It was adopted into Middle English as "noumpere," a noun meaning "arbitrator," denoting someone "not equal" to the parties in a dispute and thus able to mediate between them.

Early on, English speakers must have lost any sense of the word's French etymological components. This is apparent because not long after "noumpere" appeared in the late 14th century, a variant "oumpere" began showing up in manuscripts. This new form resulted from misplacing the boundary between the noun and a preceding indefinite article: "a noumpere" was understood as "an oumpere." By the 16th century no further trace of the word with the initial "n" is found. Spellings such as "umpier" and "umpire" show a change in the way the word was pronounced, which must have begun shortly after the word was first borrowed into English.

In reference to an arbiter in a sporting event, "umpire" was first recorded in 1714.

Question: "Blaspheme" strikes me as an odd word. Can you tell me anything about its origin?

- H. C., Indianapolis, Ind.

Answer: "Blaspheme" comes from Late Latin "blasphemare," which is also the source of "blame." "Blasphemare" was borrowed from Greek "blasphemein," meaning "to speak ill of, blaspheme," from "blasphemos," meaning "evil-speaking." The first element in this word is of obscure origin. The second element is from "pheme," meaning "speech," which is also found in "euphemism."

The earliest known use of "blaspheme" in English was in the mid-14th century.

Question: What can you tell me about the origin and meaning of the word "conundrum"?

- D. G., Monroe, Mich.

Answer: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "conundrum" (the stress is on the second syllable) in three senses: "a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun," "a question or problem having only a conjectural answer," and "an intricate and difficult problem."

The "pun" sense goes back to at least the mid-17th century, but the word is older than that. At one time it meant "whim, fancy, crotchet" ("crotchet" means "a highly individual and usually eccentric opinion or preference"). We know of this use as far back as the very early 1600s, but the actual origin of "conundrum" is itself a conundrum (that is, a difficult problem). We do know that the word had various spellings, such as "conimbrum," "quonundrum," "conuncrum," and "quadundum," before the current spelling was finally established sometime in the mid-17th century. One theory suggests that it was coined as a parody of Latin by students at Oxford University, where it appears to have enjoyed particular popularity in its "word play" or "pun" sense.

For a while in the 17th century both the "crotchet" sense and the "pun" sense were current, but gradually the former was lost and the latter narrowed to refer only to a riddle that involves a pun (as in: What do you call a line of rabbits walking backward? A receding hare line.) This in turn gave rise to its use in the late 18th century to refer to a puzzling question.

While the prevalent sense in this century is that of the seemingly unanswerable question, frequently applied to heady dilemmas involving ethics, sociology, or economics, the word is sometimes so loosely applied to anything enigmatic as to be synonymous with "puzzle" or "mystery." In a conundrum (in the "word play" sense) of their own, British engineers in World War II named huge drums that were used to lay fuel pipe across the English Channel "conundrums." The fuel was to supply the Allied invasion forces in France - every attempt was made, of course, to keep the true nature of the operation hidden from the enemy.