What in the Word?

For the armchair etymologist

By Hilary Berg

Word origins have always intrigued me. For example, “nice,” one of the most detested words by English teachers and editors around the world, first meant “ignorant” in Latin (nescius) — fitting for the wordsmith’s universal contempt of the tiresome adjective.

The word morphed from Latin to Old French to Middle English and, finally, Modern English, with several different meanings, many of them quite negative.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the earliest meaning of “nice” once it was adopted in Modern English. Around the 14th century, more positive definitions started to develop; the most common — the one that riles up writing buffs — is “pleasant.” Using it in this sense, the writer best grab a thesaurus and avoid the scorn.

In the Pacific Northwest, there are so many Native American words that hold just as much significance and history — thousands of years.

On page 9, you’ll find a story about the purchase of the Chambers family’s Eola-Amity Hills site. The couple named their property “Koosah,” a Chinook word meaning “heavenly sky,” no doubt a reference to the high elevation and divine views. By the way, Kevin and Carla Chambers are some of the nicest — I mean friendliest, thoughtful — people you will meet in the industry.

Wine country’s most prolific word “Willamette” has roots, too, but the origin story appears murky. Derived from “wallamt” — among other spellings — the indigenous word likely means “still water,” but the debate seems ongoing with many interpretations among several Native tribes.

As for Oregon’s newest AVA, Lower Long Tom, located outside Eugene and named for the Willamette tributary (see page 24), its etymology reveals a surprising Wikipedia entry: “The river’s name, Long Tom, developed gradually during the 19th century in imitation of a Native tribal group called Lung-tum-ler. The Native American name of this Kalapuyan group literally means ‘spank-his-ass.’”

What!? I love words. I love history. I also not-so-secretly love swearing — it’s a win-win-win.

If you haven’t visited the wineries of the Lower Long Tom, you are missing out. The people are salt-of-the-earth, and the wines, they kick you know what... In other words, they are nice — I mean delicious, complex, enjoyable. Don’t miss out.

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