Tag Archives: Etymology

That’s not my name

14 Mar

The term “Eskimo” was once used to refer to the indigenous peoples who lived in the circumpolar regions of Greenland, Canada, the United States, and Siberia. However, the term has fallen out of favor, particularly in Greenland and Canada.  But what exactly does it mean?

That’s a difficult question and the answer depends upon whom you ask. What is consistent is that the etymology comes from the Montagnais language, the language of the indigenous peoples who settled in the mountains of Northern Canada.


Robert Hale Ives Goddard, curator emeritus of Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, claims Eskimo comes from the Montagnais assime·w, meaning “one who nets snowshoes.”

Jose Mailhot, an anthropologist out of Quebec, suggests it has a different meaning. She traces it to the Montagnais ayaxkyimewa, meaning “speaks the language of a foreign land.”

There is also a widespread perception that the word comes from the Algonquian askamiciw meaning “eats something raw.”  This is thought to refer to the practice of eating uncooked fish and seal. And while a majority of academic linguists do not agree with this meaning, the word is still seen as pejorative in Greenland and Canada.

So, how should you refer to people from this region of the world? Consider using their own term, Inuit, meaning “people.” It is the plural of inuk, meaning “man.”


A time before clocks

13 Mar

Clockwise and counterclockwise are well established terms now, but before clocks were common objects how was rotational motion described?

To describe what we would now call clockwise, the Scottish used the term Sunwise. This relates back to the prior time keeping device, a sundial, and the fact that the Scottish lived in the Northern Hemisphere.


In the Northern Hemisphere, the sun appears in the southern sky and tracks from East to West. As a result, the shadow on a horizontal sundial tracks from West to East through the North. When clocks replaced sundials, they adopted this traditional sense of rotation.

The Scottish also described clockwise motion with terms related to Deiseil, derived from the Latin dexter, meaning ‘on the right-hand side.’ This is because clockwise motion around an object keeps the right hand toward it (important if you are carrying a sword in said hand).

The Scottish term for counterclockwise was widdershins, related to the German weddersinnes, meaning ‘direction opposite the usual.’ It seems that counterclockwise has again been defined as being the other direction.