There are two nouns morion; the first, meaning a kind of helmet, does not concern us here (it is probably from Spanish morrión), but the second, a variety of smoky quartz, has an interesting etymology: it is from a Latin word morion that is a misreading of Pliny’s mormorion. I wrote here about collimate, from an erroneous reading of Latin collineare; I wonder if there is a list somewhere of words with similar histories?


  1. The English word poetry ultimately derives from such a misreading. In latin poetria means female poet. Misled by a botched transmission of a sentence in the work by Martianus Capella “The marriage of Philology and Mercury”, which functioned as an encyclopedia in the Middle Ages, medieval sages assumed that poetria meant poetry, not poetess.
    The true Latin word for poetry is poiesis, hence the word poesy that purists favored in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
    Here’s a discussion, in French

  2. John Emerson says:

    “Troglodyte” is also a real, completely valid word, but in some very early contexts it is an error for “trogodyte” by false etymology. We’ve discussed this here.
    Tatar/Tartar is another. “Hoard” / “horde” are still distinct, though many merge them.

  3. John Emerson says:

    In Portuguese poem is the third person plural of poner “put” so I wrote this: Os poetas se poem ao Poema, where se poem means “begin, put oneself to” as if there were only one Poem.
    -poiesis” is also used technical in physiology for when the body produces something (e.g. blood cells).
    I was very pleased when I did this decades ago, and I’ve never checked since to see whether the joke really works or not. It may well be as bad as some of the barbarous ESL attempts to write English poems and jokes that I’ve seen.

  4. As soon as I saw morion in the title, part of Tolkien’s lighthearted poem “Errantry” began to play in my head:
    He made a shield and morion
    of coral and of ivory,
    a sword he made of emerald,
    and terrible his rivalry
    with elven-knights of Aerie
    and Faerie, with paladins
    that golden-haired and shining-eyed
    came riding by and challenged him.
    Of crystal was his habergeon,
    his scabbard of chalcedony;
    with silver tipped at plenilune
    his spear was hewn of ebony.
    His javelins were of malachite
    and stalactite — he brandished them,
    and went and fought the dragon-flies
    of Paradise, and vanquished them.
    Now this is a parody of the Arming of the Hero in various epic works, and in Tolkien’s rather more serious Earendillinwe, which is derived by progressive rewrite from “Errantry”, the corresponding passage stands as follows, where it describes the arming of a genuine hero:
    His coat that came from ancient kings,
    of chained rings was forged of old;
    his shining shield all wounds defied
    with runes entwined of dwarven gold.
    His bow was made of dragon-horn,
    his arrows shorn of ebony,
    of triple steel his habergeon,
    his scabbard of chalcedony;
    his sword was like a flame in sheath,
    with gems was wreathed his helmet tall,
    an eagle-plume upon his crest,
    upon his breast an emerald.
    Note however that one single line — the only such line in the whole poem — remains intact from first to last. (The version published in The Lord of the Rings is, probably by accident, not the final form, which was buried in Tolkien’s papers until unearthed by his son and published.
    But alas, all this is wasted, for this morion “does not concern us here.”

  5. Caramello says:

    Koala originated as a misreading of koola.

  6. Famously, “kike” was once misheard as “kite”.

  7. “Ginkgo” presumably came from a misreading of “ginkyo” — even though that’s not how the characters are read in Japanese. (The first character could be read “gin” and the second one “kyou”, true; but together, they are read “ichou” [the tree] or “ginnan” [the fruit].)

  8. Which Pliny? I’m assuming Pliny the Elder, since this definition of morion would fit best in his Natural Histories.

  9. Richard Sabey says:

    The name Imogen for Cymbeline’s daughter in Shakespeare’s play arose from a misreading of Innogen, which is how the character is named in other versions of the Cymbeline story.

  10. Which Pliny? I’m assuming Pliny the Elder
    Following either the “smoky quartz” link or the “mormorion” link would have confirmed you in that assumption.

  11. “Compound”, as in a group of buildings: I always assumed this was from “componere”, as is the case for “compound” as in a chemical compound; but there’s a possible etymology from Malay “kampung”.

  12. I don’t have access to books that would prove it right now, but I believe ‘syllabus’ comes from a corrupt manuscript of Cicero’s letters where Cicero actually wrote ‘sittybos’ or something like that.
    Which raises a tangential question: if ‘syllabus’ was never an actual Latin word, does that mean the plural should be ‘syllabuses’ rather than ‘syllabi’?

  13. The Oxford American agrees with you, Michael, and I find your conclusion unavoidable.

  14. Not a classical Latin word, Michael, but Latin for all that.

  15. Well, the syllabus was made in a Latin edition, not a translation, so maybe it then counts as an actual Latin word.
    gravy might be from gravé (that is, graué) as a misreading of grané
    sneeze is a misreading of fneeze, after fn was pretty much gone. If it survived intact, it would be neeze, I guess.

  16. Don’t forget lespedeza.

  17. Richard Sabey says:

    @Michael Hendry That word from which we get “syllabus” was “sittybas”, accusative plural of “sittyba”, from Greek “sittyba”, a book label.
    “Abacot” is a ghost word that arose through a series of misreadings. This and other curious words are mentioned here:
    @ajay Like your “compound” is “flageolet” (the kidney bean), which was derived from French “fageolet”. Nothing to do with the flute.

  18. There are a few instances of historical dictionaries claiming early uses of modern words (or words similar to them) due to misreadings. Like aeration in the original OED (and so others) supposedly from Calvin (right page, third line). We see exactly the same thing with Google Books OCR errors whenever LanguageLog (or some other blog) invites people to find early citations.

  19. I have to say that fneeze has made my day.

  20. The OED’s spurious words appendix, which is the centerpiece of the article that Richard Sabey cites, is loads of fun. Like grout ‘a kind of wild apple’, at one time in pretty much every dictionary, including Johnson to Webster. It comes from mistaking some gloss that included agromellum (some kind of plant used somehow in making beer) to be ἀγριό-μηλον ‘wild apple’.
    Occasionally a misunderstanding of the sense of a specific well-known text manages to take hold in general use. Like supposing that there was a person standing under Longfellow‘s chestnut tree.

  21. ajay (a misreading of “ajax”, perhaps?): compound may or may not be from Mly kampung, but then again kampung may or may not be from Pt campo or one of its Romance relatives.
    McMM: Looking in Clark Hall, I find that fnæd, fnæs ‘fringe’ is now lost, but all the other words in fn- are now in sn- (viz. snore and snort), which suggests a true sound-change rather than mere miswriting or misreading. Per contra, it is true that the other modern Germanic languages all have n- in sneeze but sn- in snore, snort, so the OED may be right after all.

  22. I thought Ajay was an Indian name.

  23. How could sneeze have resulted from a misreading? Surely it wasn’t a learned word?

  24. Here is the theory as I understand it. fnese had become nese by the beginning of the 15th century. In editions of earlier works in the 1490s, either by misreading of the source or sorts getting mixed up, ſnese got printed. The two earliest occurrences in the OED were done by Wynkyn de Worde; the corresponding earlier version by Caxton and a manuscript, respectively, had the older regular fnese. This mistaken form was perceived by people who only knew nese as some kind of stronger form of that, with maybe some reinforcement from the phonetics. So much so that it replaced it.

  25. I have to say that fneeze has made my day.
    Yes, that’s pretty great. I’ll have to start telling my grandson “You fneezed!”

  26. I actually think people would spray fewer germs around if they tried to make their sneezes sound more like fneezes.

  27. marie-lucie says:

    “flageolet” (the kidney bean), which was derived from French “fageolet”.
    Are you talking about English or French words? I have never heard flageolet used in English, but it is the normal French word for some kind of bean (green or white, rather than the red kidney bean). According to the Petit Robert, flageolet results from a cross between the Picard word fageolet for the bean with the French word flageolet for a kind of rustic flute. There is also the verb flageoler which is what your legs to when they seem to turn to rubber because of extreme tiredness or a strong emotion.

  28. English uses the word fagioli, but mostly in Italian restaurants.
    In Arabic, beans are fasoolia فاصوليا .

  29. “Flageolet Beans” is how they are generally labeled in the USA. For instance, Bob’s Red Mill (recently in the news for ownership changes) packages them.
    Is Petit Robert saying it’s an eggcorn?

  30. Green beans are (or were) known in England as haricot beans. Actually, in the French Wikipedia on haricot it says:
    François Rabelais nous en parle au milieu du XVIe siècle, quand Panurge accuse le fazéolz de rendre le carême encore plus déplaisant.
    Later, it goes on:
    Dans son Théâtre d’agriculture et mesnage des champs, en 1600, Olivier de Serres le nomme faziols. Le phaseolus grec puis latin s’est transformé en fajou à Nice, fiajole à Lyon, fayola dans le Dauphiné, fazor à Briançon, fajoula dans l’Ain, fayou dans les Hautes-Alpes et le Var. C’est le fayoul ou fayol provençal, qui devient dans la marine fayol puis fayau ou fayot. En Picardie, il a été nommé fajole, d’où a dérivé flageolet.

  31. John Emerson says:

    Fageolet / flageolet / flageoler is one of the most satisfying word groups I’ve ever encountered. Don’t ask me why.

  32. There is also the verb flageoler which is what your legs to when they seem to turn to rubber because of extreme tiredness or a strong emotion.
    The word flageolet always reminds me of the flagella of spirochetes. That’s something you can catch when, due either to extreme tiredness or strong emotion, you fail to use a rubber.

  33. il a été nommé fajole
    …and in the Mexican restaurants “frijole”
    You have to wonder if it came from Latin and the r got change to an l as in the “flied lice” tasteless Chinese joke.

  34. Here is the derivation of frijol in the Diccionario breve de mexicanismos:

    frijol. (Del latín phaseolus, diminutivo de phaselus, del griego pháse-los ‘frijol, alubia’.)

    This is the same ultimate origin that the TLFi gives for flageolet. I don’t know what policies are in place for specifying derivations in the Diccionario breve. Perhaps they only give the “earliest” known root. Somehow I think it implausible that Mexicans got frijol straight from the Oracle’s mouth in Delphi.

  35. I thought Ajay was an Indian name.
    It is.

  36. Merriam-Webster says: “from earlier fesol, fresol, probably modification of Galician feijoo, from Latin phaseolus, diminutive of phaselus cowpea, from Greek phasēlos.” So that gives you some of the intermediate stages.

  37. Feijoada comes from the Portuguese for beans.

  38. Feijoa, on the other hand, is from a guy named Feijó.

  39. The Brazilian Mr Bean.

  40. Well…I now have an inkling of where the sicilian murriune might come from. My mum uses it for anything turbandy.

  41. Murrine is an Italian term for colored patterns or images made in a glass cane (long rods of glass) that are revealed when cut in cross-section. Murrine can be made in infinite designs—some styles are more familiar, such as millefiore. Artists working in glass design murrine in a variety of ways from simple circular or square patterns to complex detailed designs to even portraits of people. Murrine are designed by layering different colors of molten glass around a core, then heating and stretching it into a rod. When cool, the rod is sliced into cross-sections of desired thickness with each slice possessing the same pattern in cross-section. The murrine process first appeared in the middle east more than 4,000 years ago and was revived by Venetian glassmakers on Murano in the early 1500s.

  42. When I was still just a kleine Ratte and Dreikäsehoch, I remember having Murine administered for some eye condition.

  43. Dreikäsehoch ist eine umgangssprachliche und scherzhafte Bezeichnung für ein kleines (also nicht hochgewachsenes) Kind. Das Benennungsmotiv dieser seit dem 18. Jahrhundert gebräuchlichen Redewendung ist unklar. Eine Möglichkeit besteht in der damaligen scherzhaften Verwendung aufeinander gestapelter Käselaibe als Größenangabe für Kinder. Ein Dreikäsehoch ist folglich so groß wie ein Stapel aus drei Käselaiben. Andererseits wird vermutet, dass das Wort hingegen nichts mit Käse zu tun hat, sondern vom französischen Wort caisse (deutsch: Kiste, Kasten) abstammt. Demnach bezeichnet es jemanden, der so groß ist wie drei Kisten.

  44. Three boxes of what ? Pre-sliced cheese packages ? Three wheels of cheese is a more satisfying image.
    And caisse also means cash register. I don’t see cash registers as a suitably standardized unit of height, since they don’t stack up well. So the derivation doesn’t stack up either.
    Anyway, I was trying to suggest that murrines are actually sliced colored mice.

  45. Murine–don’t use muriatic acid by mistake.

  46. Das Benennungsmotiv ist unklar.

  47. A tower of cheese? Sliced mice? Now for some reason I am thinking of Hatto and the Mäuseturm again.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Drei whatevers:
    In French the phrase for a small child is haut comme trois pommes “three apples tall”. I have never heard caisses ‘crates’ (or any other word) in this context. In my experience, crates vary in size a lot more than apples, and the word implies a largish container. I think that caisse as a potential origin for German Käse is folk etymology – people trying hard to find a foreign origin for something they can’t explain.
    Just as the French phrase does not refer to “apples” literally as units for measuring children, similarly the cheeses in question would not have to be imagined as the huge wheels from Switzerland and thereabouts.

  49. Trond Engen says:

    In French the phrase for a small child is haut comme trois pommes “three apples tall”.
    Norwegian: En neve stor “a hand tall”, especially (only?) in siden … var en neve stor “from early childhood”. There may have been another expression: In his Vi ere en Nation vi med “We are a nation also we” (often called “the children’s national anthem”) Wergeland continued vi smaa, en Alen lange “we short, an ell long”.

  50. the cheeses in question would not have to be imagined as the huge wheels from Switzerland and thereabouts.
    But marie-lucie, cheese “wheels” are always stored flat, so it’s the height of the width (pour ainsi dire) that is the unit of measure. “Millstones” might be less confusing, but what a difficult mechanism for measuring growth !
    A Käserad can also be called a Käselaib – a loaf or (taking the size into account) loafaroonie of cheese.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    But marie-lucie, cheese “wheels” are always stored flat, so it’s the height of the width (pour ainsi dire) that is the unit of measure.
    I am well aware of that. But I doubt that cheeses were ever used to measure children, any more than apples were. Otherwise it would not always be “three” units.

  52. ajay, I did but jest, poison in jest, no offense in the world.

Speak Your Mind