Sunday, 16 February 2014

How can ‘Bully’, ‘Cabbage’ and 'Pumpkin' link to Valentine’s Day?

As I have written before, hundreds of words in English have shifting meanings.


As we all know today, ‘bully’ means someone who is nasty, intimidating and overbears people for their own gain which may not be the best definition to think about when talking about Valentine’s Day. However,when this term first entered English in the mid-1500s, it did so as a gender-neutral term for ‘sweetheart’ or ‘darling’.

Another not-so-romantic term is ‘cabbage’, used today to refer to a ‘sweetheart’ or someone held dear. The term probably has French origins: 'Chou' (cabbage) in Petit chou is the French equivalent of 'sweetheart'. 'Chou' conveys the idea of being small and round and is used to describe French puff pastry, often enjoyed as 'chou a la creme'. 'Chou' is said to resemble a baby's or child's head too. Over the years, many French children have been told that boys were born in cabbages and girls in roses. You can double it too - 'chouchou' is a standard translation for 'darling'. This is why we may also refer to a loved-one as 'pumpkin' - Portugese for squash (similar to pumpkin) is 'Chuchu', strangely alike to the French 'chouchou'.

How ‘honeymoon’ is not very romantic at all

As with ‘soulmate’ which I spoke about in my last post, you may also hear the word ‘honeymoon’ in and around Valentine’s Day, or indeed, all year. But unlike ‘soulmate’, ‘honeymoon’ may not be as romantic as you might think.

Many old languages had one word for ‘month’ and ‘moon’ as it takes approximately one month for the moon to orbit the Earth. It is the temporal sense from where ‘honeymoon’ derives: the ‘moon’ in ‘honeymoon’ served to remind newlyweds that their period of blissful harmony had an expiration date.

Thus, the etymology of the word has a far less romantic backstory.

Searching for a Soulmate

As you will be well aware, Valentine’s Day was last week, and whether you are single or in a relationship, you can admire many words that can be associated with February 14th.

Onme such word you may hear or use is ‘soulmate’. The idea of a soul (abstract noun) having a ‘mate’ may seem strange, so where did it come from?

Well, it may be older than you think. Despite the term being popular throughout the twentieth century, the term originates from Plato’s Symposium, written between 385 – 380 BC. In Symposium, two dialogists discuss love; Aristophanes tells Socrates that human beings used to have four arms, four legs, and two faces and were happy and complete. But Zeus was jealous and split them in two with his thunderbolt and the lovers spent their lives searching for their other half.

Thus, the ides of finding ‘the other half’ has been with us ever since. Indeed, Samuel Taylor-Coleridge in 1822 wrote ‘To be happy in married life…you must have a soul-mate’. So a very old word with quite romantic beginnings.