Question: I am hoping you will be able to answer my question about the "Rx" that is used for prescriptions. I know that "Rx" stands for an actual Latin or Greek phrase. I would like to know the actual word or words that "Rx" stands for and the definition.

Answer: The symbol "Rx" used on prescriptions is really just an "R" with an "x" added or an "R" with a stroke made through its tail. The "x" or stroke, whichever is being used, seems to have no special meaning and was added originally just to avoid confusion. It signals that the "R" is in fact being used as an abbreviation and not in some other way. The use of such an identifying mark is not unique to this "R." Another example is the symbol for the British pound, which is really just an "L" with a line through it to signal that this particular "L" is being used to refer to the monetary unit.

The "R" in "Rx" is historically an abbreviation for the Latin word "recipe," the command form of the verb "recipere," which means "to take or receive." Our word "recipe" first meant "prescription" in the medical sense. Only later was it used in connection with cooking, though this meaning is of course much more common today.

Question: At a Superbowl party I attended, the question came up as to where the term "scrimmage" comes from. Can you shed any light on this?

Answer: "Scrimmage" is a 15th-century word altered from "skirmish" by transposing the "i" and "r" and muddling the "-ish" ending with "-age." There was a semi-muddled intermediate form "scrimish," attested a few times from the 16th century. The original meaning was the same as that of "skirmish." In the 18th century it came to mean any kind of noisy altercation, and as the word for a noisy and confused struggle it was a natural, in the 19th century, for use in Rugby football. The 19th century also saw a dialectal variant "scrummage" used for the "altercation" sense, and this variant was the one that stuck in rugby, where it has since been shortened to "scrum." American football adopted the term from rugby, but kept the older form "scrimmage." "Scrimmage" has subsequently been used in other American sports.

Question: I attended several parties over the holidays at which canapes were served as hors d'oeuvres. I looked "canape" up later in my dictionary and found that the word comes from the Latin for "mosquito net." How did we get from mosquito nets to cheese on crackers?

Answer: A mosquito was called "konops" in ancient Greek, and a couch hung with curtains for protection against mosquitoes was a "konopion." This word for the piece of furniture was borrowed by the Romans as "conopeum" and eventually made its way from Medieval Latin, where it was found in the form "canopeum," into Middle English as "canope" and French as "canape." The English and French have always seen things somewhat differently, and while the English attached the name to the covering curtain, now spelled "canopy," the French attached it to the couch it covered. Later, a piece of bread or toast topped with some savory food was felt to resemble a couch or sofa, and the French "canape" gained a new meaning. We have borrowed the appetizer and the name from the French.

This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. Send questions to: Merriam-Webster's Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal Street, Springfield, Mass. 01102.