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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: Learning English can be Torture, Part 2

How are "verdict," "patient," and "embarrassment" related? The etymology of these and four other words will be examined for their relationship to crime and punishment. Some of our benign English words have their pasts in the sadistic lives of some of our ancestors.


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Last month we examined some phrases that dealt with how punishments of days gone by have led to colorful phrases that seem to be much less horrible than their origins suggest. We shall continue with that exploration by looking at single words that may not always sound pleasant, but are nowhere near as painful as their initial uses describe.

As a child, I was often easily embarrassed (my mother labeled me "shy," which hardly is the way most of my friends describe me today). I admit, however, that I still turn all shades of red when I am caught saying something that has been misunderstood (after all, I have a degree in communication; I'm not supposed to be misunderstood!). Saying that I am easily embarrassed is still an understatement; I've just learned to laugh about it instead of running away to hide. But, for our forebears, one who was "embarrassed" was completely unable to run away at all: the word comes from embarrer, meaning "enclosing behind bars" (i.e., prison). The condition of being imprisoned was a cause of much shame for the one behind the bars and that circumstance – being embarred – led quickly to the word "embarrassment," soon applied to a general feeling of humiliation (Garrison, p. 83).

When humiliated and embarrassed, many of us just get quiet (no need to add to the feeling of shame). But others spend much time trying to overcome the problem by explaining away the behavior that brought on the situation in the first place. Such brazen talk was sometimes a reason to gag a person. In the early to mid-1500s, the original verb gaggen meant "to strangle or suffocate" (which would certainly quiet a person). The noun "gag" was applied to anything that would cause one to be quiet (Barnhart, pp. 417-418). But if we look even closer to the early use of this word, we find it bordering on torture. In 1500s Scotland, it was believed that life was a serious matter and that those (particularly women) who complained or were of a scolding nature should be gagged. The gag that was employed was made of iron and was devised so that it could be locked onto a woman's head, allowing a bit (such as used for horses) to be inserted into the mouth in a way that would depress the tongue of the wearer. The device was called a brank and once in place, the wearer would be chained in the common square where her obviously inappropriate behavior could now be the butt of all the jokes of the townsfolk. She had no ability to defend herself, being totally gagged, and the jokes were soon given the same label: gags (Garrison, p. 223). Over time, this term has been altered to mean "to deceive" (Barnhart, p. 418). Perhaps that is part of what was happening between the gagged woman on display and the joking townsfolk – deceiving themselves that all of this was in any way helpful to a community.

Many of us, in our very homes, have an instrument of torture (and that's no gag); at least that is what it once was (no, not the computer – we're talking physical, not mental, torture). And those who own one, consider it an important part of their daily lives! The treadmill! That stair-step machine, with the moving parts that makes the climbing endless, all began with a way to keep prisoners occupied, suffering for their crimes, and creating product useful to the community (a truly symbiotic relationship). Somewhere around 1820, an unknown genius created a machine that consisted of a large wheel that was turned through the movement of horizontal treads (from the Teutonic language meaning "to step or walk upon" – a verb that was transformed into a noun; an interesting change in the norm, as so many nouns have been made into verbs – consider "access" . . . but I digress). Those who were imprisoned were "employed" (not in the "receiving remuneration for" sense, of course) as the operators and their constant treading on the treads moved the wheel. The wheel, then, was connected to a mill, to grind whatever grain was needed by the community. Voilà! The treadmill was born (Funk, p. 199). Perhaps I would be more inclined to use my treadmill if I got something to eat after the workout (hmm, that would probably defeat the purpose, though).

When I do get myself steeled up to exercise, I find myself growing impatient with the process (I could be doing something so much more productive – like writing a Lexicon article . . . no lectures, please). Besides the time element, after exercising, I hurt! I didn't realize until recently that this whole experience is related to patience – that is, "suffering." It seems that the Latin word patientem means "to suffer or endure." Over time, the word pacyent emerged as referring to a person suffering and being under a medical practitioner's care. So, today, one who is "patient" (suffering) needs to be "patient" (enduring) until the doctor can be reached take the person on as a "patient" (one receiving medicinal assistance). One word, three meanings: but all going back to the same origin (Barnhart, p. 764). The Roman soldiers called the one who was injured a patient-em (meaning "to suffer"). Their use of the word did not always correspond with undeserved pain (Garrison, pp. 406-407); this could be the result of some sort of punishment, as well.

My granddaughter was complaining the other day about her ordeal of having to wash the floors in the house – on her hands and knees! Can you imagine (much suffering – I guess that would make her a patient)? However, if she knew what a true "ordeal" was to our ancestors, perhaps she would be grateful to have escaped so easily. The Old English word ordal meant "to deal out," and was used by the ancient Norsemen to represent a form of trial by lot. This idea "caught on" (for some sadistic reason) and other cultures believed that if a man, who was thought to be guilty of some sort of crime, was actually innocent, this could be proved by such a method. The alleged guilty party, then, was made to accomplish some feat (e.g., immerse a body part into boiling water, walk over burning coals, etc.) and, should he remain unharmed, his innocence was then proved (Garrison, pp. 89-90), the theory being that God would never allow a just person to be injured (Barnhart, p. 734).

It is so nice that, these days, there are other ways to prove a person's innocence. If arrested and brought to trial, the alleged perpetrator has the right to be tried by a "jury of his (her) peers" and, should this jury render a "not-guilty" verdict, the person is acquitted of the charges and freed (no fire, no boiling water – just that "verdict"). Why did it come to be that, at least in the major trials, a jury of twelve citizens (and however alternates might be needed) is considered the optimum amount? In the Middle Ages, the number "twelve" was considered holy; after all, there were twelve disciples of Christ, twelve tribes of Israel (even an old gospel song talks about "Twelve Gates to the City," not to mention "The Twelve Days of Christmas" . . . I am digressing again), etc. The "logic" (term used loosely here) was that twelve men (no women on juries back in the medieval times) were able only to render a true pronouncement (being holy, due to their number). A French word was assigned to represent this "body of twelve" persons, bound to expose the facts: vier ("truth") plus dit ("said"). So today, supernatural powers notwithstanding, someone on trial for homicide or other majorly serious crime cannot be declared "guilty" without the consent of all twelve sitting in judgment (Garrison, p. 149).

Of course, as we all know (either from watching television dramas, real life trials, or experiencing the actual event first-hand), twelve people gathered together because they happened to be summoned to jury duty on the same day have very few supernatural powers and often are unable to come to agreement (so much for the magic of twelve). In the early days of jury trials, when the jurists were unable to come to an agreement or the evidence was too weak to make any decision (creating what we would call today a "hung" jury – a term for another day), the foreman wrote the word ignoramus (Latin for "we do not know") on the back of the indictment. In 1615, as a "play on a word," George Ruggle wrote a play in which the character of an incompetent lawyer was named "Ignoramus." It is more likely from that play than from the jury foreman's pronouncement of lack of knowledge that today we call one who pretends to be a know-it-all, but is anything but, is labeled an "ignoramus" (Garrison, pp. 213-214).

As genealogists, sometimes we feel as if we are on a treadmill: moving fast and going nowhere. This ordeal may cause us to be impatient and to grab at any shred of information that we believe is representative of our family. But if we are in error and later research yields a verdict that the information was in error, we certainly are embarrassed. Feeling like an ignoramus, such a researcher should be gagged before presenting erroneous data.


Barnhart, Robert K., Ed. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Chambers, 2003.

Funk, Charles Earle. Horsefeathers & Other Curious Words. New York: Harper & Row, 1958, 1986.

Garrison, Webb. Why Do You Say It? The Fascinating Stories behind over 700 Everyday Words and Phrases. New York: Abingdon Press, 1955.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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