Sunday, June 5, 2011


Word of the Week

A feature wherein TileHead highlights a word that is is especially interesting or unusual (and, incidentally, useful in Scrabble play):


(unscramble the letters to form this week's word...)


(answer below, after a little more spoiler space....)


This week's word is...


  • Definition(s):
    1. (n.) an interpreter and guide, especially one who serves as an interpreter of Arabic, Turkish, or Persian employed in the Near East or Middle East
  • Front hooks: (none)
  • Back hooks: -S
  • Anagrams: (none)
  • Longer extensions: (none)
  • Wraparounds: (none)
  • Other Spellings: (none)
  • Related Forms: (none)

TileHead says:
This is a truly ancient word, deriving from Akkadian (targumannu, "interpreter"), an extinct language that was spoken in ancient Mesopotamia.  From the earliest Akkadian and Aramaic forms, the word journeyed through Arabic, Greek, medieval Latin, Old Italian, and Old French before arriving in Middle English in the 1300-1400s.  The second part of the word thus has no relation to the familiar English word MAN, though the alternate plural form DRAGOMEN probably developed from this erroneous association.
He was also a merchant of some prominence; but he kept on at his old business as dragoman from a veritable love of it. He enjoyed being on the desert, or up the Nile, or in the Holy Land.
   ~ Henry Clay Trumbull, Kadesh-Barnea:
      Its Importance and Probable Site, with 
     the Story of a Hunt for It

These dragomans mainly were recruited from the Ottoman Greek community, which possessed considerable multilingual skills because substantial Greek trading communities did business in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean worlds.
   ~ Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire,

He had not served as a dragoman before, but was highly thought of in Beirut, exceedingly anxious to oblige them, and a natural polyglot, speaking English, French, German, Italian, and some Greek — all learned by ear.
   ~ Janet Soskice, The Sisters of Sinai: How
     Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the
     Hidden Gospels
A small number of other words have successfully taken the long lexical journey from Akkadian to modern English.  For example, ZIGGURAT (also spelled ZIKURAT or ZIKKURAT), deriving from the Akkadian ziqqurratu ("pinnacle"), is the proper term for a pyramidal temple with successive terraced steps, such as were constructed in the ancient lands of modern-day Iran and Iraq.  These temples featured a religious shrine at the top of the structure, as well as courtyards, living quarters, and other rooms in the lower portions.  The ZIGGURAT is a kind of "step pyramid," types of which were also built independently (and with varying purposes, significance, and techniques) in ancient cultures in Africa, the Americas, and Europe.
The temple at the foot of a ziggurat was the main temple of the city, upon which were centred all the chief festivals of the city, and in the case of Babylon of the state also.
   ~ H.W.F. Saggs, Civilization Before
      Greece and Rome
Perhaps the most famous example of an ancient step pyramid is the "Tower of Babel," mentioned in a Biblical story intended to explain the origin of different languages among the various peoples of the world.  Thus, BABEL (from Akkadian bab-ilu, "gate of god") also survives today to mean "a confusion of sounds or voices" or "any scene of confusion."
This disagreement has been rendered even more confusing by a babel of voices from the ranks of sociologists.
   ~ Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New
As these examples illustrate, the stories and beliefs of the ancients still influence English, a flexible language that has always incorporated vestiges of many peoples and cultures.

Speaking of English language traditions, congratulations to Sukanya Roy of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, winner of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee ( 

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