Why is Jack the nickname for John?
- David Feldman,
in Lifes Imponderables
The other day when I took my computer to the shop to have its quirks analyzed, cured, or explained, I thought I had entered a foreign country.
Now, Ive been to a dozen foreign countries, have a fair understanding of French and German, and can recognize a smattering of words in other languages. But what I heard that day in computer country was totally baffling to me.
Fortunately, after two hours with technicians young enough to be my grandchildren, they were able to decode their acronym-only language into enough complete English words for me to understand it.
The computer experience reminded me of my early years as a military wife. I had no idea what they meant by TDY (Temporary Duty) and PCS (Permanent Change of Station), or what my husbands unit did when they had a dreaded MCCI (Mainten-ance Inspection; the CCs escape me). And, oh, the rank mistakes I made, like thinking an LTC (lieutenant colonel) was some kind of lieutenant instead of one step below full colonel.
I sympathized with my fellow neophyte who threw her husbands dinner in his face. When she told him she had a headache, he told her to take an APC. (He meant an aspirin compound, but he could have meant an Armored Personnel Carrier.)
Communication is understandably difficult between two languages. Take the problem of the Russian professor who asked one group of students to translate an English phrase into Russian, and another group to put the same phrase back into English. What started as out of sight, out of mind, evolved into invisible idiot.
Then there are the narrow sets of words and phrases understood primarily by one group or profession, like the technical and military examples explained above. As a musician, I once told a friend, Sure, I know what a triad is. Its the first, third, and fifth notes of a scale, or the basic units of a chord. Not so, the tone-deaf lady replied. She was thinking of role-playing or a discussion with three points of view.
Genealogists also run into difficulty when tracing their ancestors from one nationality to another. For example, the German name Klein, which is also the German word for little or small, might become one of those latter names in English. Or, if their ancestors immigrated while Germans werent as welcome in this country as they are now, the name could have been changed phonetically. Someone whose last name is Cline could very well be an heir of the Klein clan, too.
But whether words are born in another language or our own, in time they may evolve into something entirely different from their original intent. Here, for your chuckling pleasure are a couple of words that have traveled far from their intended path.
With the 2004 presidential field already crowded with Democratic hopefuls, maybe someone should tell them what the word candidate really means. Similar to candid, which means fair, frank, or just, the Latin word candidus means white or pure. Thus, in ancient Rome, when a politician was running for office, he wore white garments to symbolize his clean campaign. (Could that also explain why good guys wear white hats?)
And what good is a candidate without a rival? This word didnt just evolve. It catapulted into something it was never meant to be. Stemming from the word rivus, meaning stream, it meant partners who shared the same stream. A possible explanation for this positive idea turning negative is that when two men share something for a long period of time, contention inevitably creeps in.
Speaking of streams, according to lexicographer Alexander McQueen, Eng-lish is a polyglot river, fed by the streams of every land and age, forever changing, ever flowing on.
Though such a lovely quote seems out of context with political campaigns, the deluge of words in any language that flow lovelier with time would take more than 600-700 words to define.
Incidentally, Jack became the nickname for John because of pronunciation difficulties between the English and the French. Jack comes from the name Johannes which was eventually shortened to Jan. Since the French often tacked the suffix kin onto a short name, Jan became Jankin.
Then, you guessed it, Jankin was shortened to Jank, which to those with less nasality in their speech, sounded like Jack.
See how simple that was?
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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