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Pool: Easter, etymologies, and a dog named Cess

April 18, 2017 at 2 a.m.


It is Easter as I write this and three fat deer graze outside my fence. I observe them from the window of my study, overlooking a greenbelt.

It has been a wet spring, the second in a row. After some blistering days in January and February that have made this year the hottest on record, the past few weeks have been mild, even cool.

The cactus is in yellow blossom, and some bluebonnets are still in bloom, though many of them are dropping their petals and putting the energy of creation into blue-gray seed pods.

More fireflies than usual have been flickering in the dusk recently, though nothing can match the lightning bugs of childhood, when I lived on Waggoner Street in Greggton, across from the old golf course.

My back lawn, mowed just last weekend, sprouts yellow dandelion flowers. My wife's family is coming over for Easter dinner, and I'm just going to leave the blooms as they are. I think they're beautiful. Besides, the back lawn is at the mercy of sun and rain; I mow, but don't water or fertilize it.

I've been away from social media for the duration of Lent. I cheated a few times with an occasional glance but have not posted for more than six weeks. Today I saw where someone posted a meme claiming Easter was named after Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility and power.

That's a folk etymology, and it's spurious. According to reputable resources, "Easter" comes to us from Old English "Easterdæg," and from the Proto-Indo-European word "aust," meaning "east, toward the sunrise."

That root traveled to many languages, including Irish, Dutch, Lithuanian, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, where it is "aurora."

That's also the name of a goddess of fertility and springtime, but an Indo-European, not a Mesopotamian one.

There is, however, a Semitic link to Easter. In all the non-Germanic European languages, "Easter" is a variation on "Pascha," which ultimately derives from the Hebrew term for Passover, "pesah," meaning "he passed over."

Is it mere coincidence that "pesah" and "Passover" sound alike, or "Easter" and "Ishtar"? In a word, yes. That's how folk etymologies get started.

A folk etymology is a false attribution of a word. Sometimes the term extends to borrowed words that sound similar to native words and we assume a meaning where there is none.

For example, the word "crawfish" has nothing to do with fish. It came into English from Norman French and was originally "creveis," with accent on the second syllable. That eventually Anglicized into "crayfish."

Cockroaches have nothing to do with roosters. It's a word borrowed from the Spanish, "cucaracha."

I wonder that there's not an indigenous Anglo-Saxon word for that creature.

Surely we didn't borrow the bug along with the word. We did borrow a song about la cucaracha who couldn't walk well. I guess that counts as cultural appropriation nowadays.

Back when I attended Foster Junior High School, my family got a puppy. We named it Cess, and given our surname, he was Cess Pool. At the time I had never heard of a cesspool. I don't remember who proposed the name, but I'm sure my mother, with her penchant for wordplay, had something to do with it.

"Cesspool" dates from the 1670s, and perhaps goes back to a French word of 1400, "suspiral," meaning drainpipe. But we're not sure. It might come from the Italian "cesso" for privy, which in turn goes back to the Latin "secessus," place of retirement.

And, moving from spring to Easter to etymologies to cesspools, it's time to retire this column.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesdays.

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