Thursday, December 13, 2007

Articles included -- alchemy, albatross, algorithm, hoi polloi

Borrowed from

When English borrows a word from another language, it sometimes takes its definite article too. We imported the word alligator from the Spanish el lagarto (the lizard). Alcohol came from the Arabic al-kul (the powdered antimony, and by association, substances obtained by sublimation or distillation). Many, such as alkali, algebra, lacrosse (from French: the cross), and others, are among the words bringing their own definite article, but it's not always so obvious. An extreme example of this inadvertent duplication of definite articles is in the name of the Los Angeles site of prehistoric fossils of animals, the La Brea Tar Pits, which would literally translate as the The Tar Tar Pits.

alchemy (AL-kuh-mee) noun [Via Old French and Medieval Latin from Arabic al-kimiya (the chemistry), from Greek khemeia (transmutation).]
  1. A medieval predecessor of chemistry devoted to things such as converting common metals into precious metals, finding a universal solvent (alkahest), and finding a universal remedy for diseases.
  2. A mysterious or magical process of transformation.

albatross (AL-buh-tros) noun, plural albatross or albatrosses [Apparently an alteration of Portuguese or Spanish alcatraz, from Arabic al-gattas (the diver, name for a kind of sea eagle).]

  1. Any of the Diomedeidae family of large, web-footed seabirds.
  2. A persistent wearisome burden, as of guilt, for example. The name of the Alcatraz Island near San Francisco, the site of a former maximum security prison, has the same origin.

algorithm (AL-guh-rith-uhm) noun A finite sequence of well-defined steps for solving a problem. [After al Khwarizmi (the [man] of Khwarizm), a nickname of the 9th century Persian astronomer and mathematician Abu Jafar Muhammand ibn Musa, who authored many texts on arithmetic and algebra. He worked in Baghdad and his nickname alludes to his place of origin Khwarizm (Khiva), in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.]

hoi polloi (hoi puh-LOI) noun The common people, the masses. [From Greek hoi polloi (the many).] The phrase is often mistakenly used to refer to the elite or the snobbish, quite opposite of what it really means. That usage arises probably from the first part sounding similar to "high" or from confusion with the term hoity toity. The term often appears as "the hoi polloi." Some pedants object to that construction, claiming "the" is already part of the term. If you find such people, tell them to go study gebra and drink cohol.

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